Enlightened Panda Imparts Wisdom In 'Zen Ghosts' A wise spiritual teacher (who also happens to be a bear) stars in Jon J. Muth's vibrantly illustrated picture books. Zen Ghosts combines the simplicity and elegance of a Zen teaching with the mystery and magic of a full-moon, Halloween ghost story.

Enlightened Panda Imparts Wisdom In 'Zen Ghosts'

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Thanks so much for being with us.

JON J, Host:

Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And first, why don't we just introduce this panda. Let's read the first few pages of "Zen Shorts," if we could. His name is Stillwater.

MUTH: Right, it is. Here's "Zen Shorts."

SIMON: Okay, the little boy at the door.

MUTH: He spoke with a slight panda accent.


SIMON: So this is Stillwater.

MUTH: Yes.

SIMON: How did Stillwater come into your creative imagination?

MUTH: I had done a drawing of a panda wearing a very fat pair of pants and it made me laugh. I didn't know what to do with it. But I thought it was pretty funny, but I threw it into a drawer and I didn't think too much of it. And then I went on a little while longer - a little while later, rather, I went on tour - a book tour - and I got the chance to visit with children and to read some other books I'd written previously.

SIMON: What if it was this guy? And it's obvious that he would be a Zen teacher, you know, he's a panda. That's sort of how Stillwater came about.

SIMON: I was rereading recently an interview with E.B. White, who I think is known by adults as one of the most masterful essayists ever in the English language. And, of course, many young readers know "Stuart Little," for example, "Charlotte's Web." And E.B. White says in the esteemed Paris Review interview series: You don't write down for children, you write up.

MUTH: Oh, I think that's absolutely true. I think children are completely capable of intuiting wisdom as readily as adults are. They just don't have the verbal ability to put it into words or to examine it the way we do as adults. But my experience has been that they get this stuff very quickly. And even the kids who come to the book because it has a giant panda or - tend to come back, because there's some itch that's set going in there, in their minds, or their hearts, to re-examine and re-examine what's going on.

SIMON: Well, why did you do this, and I don't quite understand that. And I think that may be the deepest way to get something from these stories.

SIMON: Let's talk about "Zen Ghosts," this new book. I love the illustrations. First one, taking a look here, is the street filled with trick or treaters on a Halloween night and a full Moon. Wonderful, wonderful little touches from the kids who are ghosts in sheets in the kind of middle distance. And then I just noticed you have a pumpkin seems to be running across the street under its own steam. Or is that just a very slender child?


SIMON: Yeah, look at that - those little legs under there?

MUTH: Yeah, some of those ghosts don't have feet either, so who knows what's exactly happening there.

SIMON: Well, I thought I'd ask you.


SIMON: And is that a chimpanzee dressed up as cowboy too?

MUTH: Yeah. I guess that - yes, that looks like a chimpanzee, doesn't it?

SIMON: Well, you would know. But yes, it sure does.

MUTH: You know, we go out trick or treating with the kids. And I seem to feel like I'm catching out of the corner of my eye all kinds of things like this anyway. So I'm just relaying what it is that I think is happening (unintelligible).

SIMON: What did you do before you wrote and illustrated your books?

MUTH: I worked in comics for about 20 years before I started doing children's books. And with the birth of my son I really wanted to start talking about different things than comic books had the room for at that time. So I did a little bit of work in Japan, which was a kind of interim time. And then started doing work that I could directly speak to kids in picture books here.

SIMON: So did you consciously begin writing for your son?

MUTH: I did the very first book that I wrote and illustrated. It was called "The Three Questions." And I had read the story by - it's based on story by Leo Tolstoy.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MUTH: He's my favorite writer, and when I finished reading it, I'd read it once before, but when I finished reading it, it was right around the time of my son's birth and I thought I - I really want to give him the things that are the tools that are in this story, the wisdom that's in this story, but I don't him to have to wait until he can understand czarist Russia. So I sat down and decided to write it for kids - and for myself - and that's how that started. And I think writing it for him was what - the catalyst for continuing to write books and discovering what it is that I'm writing about.

SIMON: I'm guessing that publishers - have they ever tried to suggest where Stillwater goes next? Like, forgive me - oh, all right. Stillwater really should meet a vampire because that's got...



SIMON: ...that's got winner written all over it.

MUTH: No. And that was never - I never intended to do a second book. The first one I thought was the whole thing. But then I was visiting my grandmother and I bumped up against an idea that could really best be handled by Stillwater, who seemed to be standing over there waving to me, so I - that's how the second book came about.

SIMON: You would see a big panda waving at you, wouldn't you? Yeah.

MUTH: Yeah, that's...


SIMON: Do you go through life seeing Stillwater?


MUTH: Well, when I'm least expecting it he's dancing on my porch. Yes, it's true.

SIMON: Most be a reinforced porch.


SIMON: Pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

MUTH: Oh, thank you, Scott.

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