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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Zen Ghosts, written and illustrated by Jon Muth. Scholastic, 2010. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"But when Senjo reached marrying
age, her father suddenly became ill and
couldn't work.
He came to her one evening and
told her that she was to wed a nice man
named Henryo. Henryo was prosperous
and could take care of the family.
Now Senjo was very sad. She had
always hoped she would marry her
best friend, Ochu."

 Zen Ghosts is the newest of three books by John Muth that feature Stillwater, a gentle, giant, koan-speaking Panda. All three books also feature the same three siblings - Karl, Addy and Michael. In this one, the children are preparing for Halloween celebrations when Stillwater comes for a visit. He offers to go with them and suggests a ghost story when they are done. So, they follow him to the storyteller, who clearly resembles Stillwater. The children have reason to wonder.

A Japanese ghost story is told that is based on a koan from The Gateless Gate. In it a young woman escapes an arranged marriage by eloping with the man she loves, her childhood friend. Watch for the twist! The story is reminiscent of the best in folklore and offers a memorable story that teaches a quiet lesson. The magic and mystery of Halloween is not lost in this well-told ghost story. It is also simple, as Zen teachings can be. Jon Muth pays attention to all the small details while offering up good advice.

Books that ask children to think about the world often lead to unexpected discussions. Jon Muth calls Senjo's story the kind that 'leaves you with more questions than answers. Stories like that can't be neatly wrapped up and placed on a quiet shelf and forgotten.' Let the talk begin!

You must take the time to pore over Jon Muth's beautifully elegant illustrations. There is so much to see and to feel. The ethereal march from the brick wall to Stillwater's house, the questioning concern on Karl's face, the handpainted story-within-a-story, and Stillwater's calm presence lead to the final meditative spread where the four bask in the full light of the harvest moon. Gorgeous!

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