Whatever your religious leanings, or lack thereof, children and adults alike will no doubt find delight in the highly rated children's book Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth, author, illustrator and artist.
The book follows a simple format: three siblings notice with amazement that a giant panda has come to live next door. The eldest, Michael, introduces himself; the girl, Addy, then introduces herself and Karl, the youngest, because he was shy "around bears he didn't know." The sweetness from that sentence alone melted my heart.
Each child in turn spends time alone with Stillwater the panda, and he shares with each of them a story, or fable, filled with wisdom or a new way to look at life and each other. The illustrations for each fable is done in a graphic, almost comic-book like way — sure to grab even a young boy's attention. Very smart.
By far, my favorite story is the final one, "A Heavy Load." An old monk carries an angry woman across some water and she doesn't even thank him and she haughtily leaves, The younger monk, after brooding for awhile, remarks to the older monk how upset he is by her slight. The old monk replied that he had set the woman down hours ago; "why are you still carrying her?" Surely a lesson we all can benefit from.
In these times of economic strife and hardship, I feel this book is so appropriate and sweet, without being heavy-handed or preachy. It gives readers, young and old, an opportunity to discuss people and situations that may be bothering them, and, if nothing else, parents can simply enjoy a beautifully drawn and rendered book.
While Muth wrote the book in 2005, he has written a "sequel" of sorts: Zen Ties, released in 2008 to stellar reviews as well. Again starring Stillwater the Panda, this book introduces a smaller sidekick, Koo (as in "Hi, Koo") and an elderly woman that the same children are afraid of, but whom they ultimately befriend with the help and encouragement of the wise Stillwater.
Muth himself is an interesting guy. He spent most of the nineties as a comic/graphic novel artist, working with writers like Neil Gaiman on The Sandman: The Wake and illustrating and developing the Moonshadow series; he also worked on Swamp Thing: Roots and M. It was only after having children of his own that he gravitated more towards doing children's books and illustrations.
So if you're looking for a bit of Zen in your own hectic day with your kids, now or anytime of year, or want to give a great book that you know your friends will appreciate for years to come, check out Zen Shorts or Zen Ties. I personally plan to give it to a particular family member who could use a lesson in, hmmm, let's just say, gratitude. Yea, I'm going with that.