• It’s the birth date of Clyde Robert Bulla (1914–2007), A Lion to Guard Us.
  • Before Barnum & Bailey’s or Ringling Brothers, Philip Astley stages the first modern circus in London, 1768. Read Henrietta Hornbuckle’s Circus of Life by Michael de Guzman.
  • Happy birthday Connecticut, the fifth state to be admitted to the United States in 1788. Read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.
  • The United Nations headquarters officially opens in New York City in 1951.
  • It’s Positively Penguins Day. If you didn’t get to it before, read Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Francis Atwater or My Season with Penguins by Sophie Webb.

Today Japan celebrates Coming of Age day, a ceremony to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the age of majority: twenty years old. Well, for those who aren’t twenty, or those who are but like to remain child-like in spirit, our book of the day, John J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, explores the Japanese word Zen.

This highly original Caldecott Honor book, first published in 2005, has been selected by teachers as one of their fifty favorite picture books. And it is no wonder. Three children, Michael, Addy, and Karl find a huge panda bear holding a large red umbrella in their back yard. Stillwater the panda first invites Addy to his house for tea and then tells a story in honor of his uncle Ry who always gives people presents on his own birthday. In this story, inspired by Japanese poet Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831), Ry presents a robber a battered robe, the only thing Ry possesses. “’Poor man,’ lamented my uncle. ‘All I had to give him was my tattered robe. If only I could have given him this wonderful moon.’” Then as Stillwater shares an afternoon with Michael and Karl, he tells an appropriate Zen story to each of the boys.

In an Author’s Note, Muth explains Zen Buddhism and his sources for these stories from Zen Buddhist literature and Taoism. In this book he has introduced young readers to an entirely new way of looking at the world—just as Stillwater introduces these three children to a different way to perceive reality. The text, that lingers long after the book has been closed, is accompanied by Muth’s stunning watercolor and ink art. Relying on Muth’s childhood fantasy of having a real panda as a friend, Zen Shorts takes readers into sophisticated concepts, but those as young as three years old have appreciated Muth’s blend of realism and spirituality.

Zen Shorts exists in a Collector’s Edition with beautiful binding and endpapers and a print suitable for framing. It makes a perfect gift—for both adults and children. As I watched one little girl read the book for the first time, she ran her hands over the art and said “these are the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen.” Many fans of Zen Shorts would agree with her.

Here’s a page from Zen Shorts:


Originally posted January 9, 2012. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Bears, Religion/Spirituality
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Zen Shorts
One year ago: Walter R. Brooks


  1. Linda Baie says:

    It is truly a beautiful book. I hope many discover it because you are sharing it. And-happy birthday to you! It’s a big deal to go a whole year!

  2. Viv says:

    Happy birthday to your website (and it’s my birthday today too !!).

    I love this book and so do both my sons (aged 11 & 6). The illustrations are beautiful and the messages in the stories are ones that always get our family reflecting and discussing. Thanks for sharing – as Linda says, I hope many more discover this lovely book because of your post.

  3. Linda Urban says:

    Yes, Happy Birthday! I’m so glad to have had this blog recommended to me. Feels silly that on YOUR blog birthday I am thanking you for the gift, but there it is. Thank you for all you do for books and readers.

  4. Beverly says:

    I just reread the book this morning. It’s a good thing I went looking because it was “hiding” inside “Zen Ties” on the shelf. Lovely book! If only we could always remember what is really important in life, friendship and beauty.

  5. Sue Shanahan says:

    One of my all time favorite picture books!

  6. Mary D says:

    This books exudes gentleness and wisdom. I bought it for my grandchildren to enjoy when they visit, but I often pick it up even when they are not here. As much as I like the story Stillwater tells Addy, I find the ones he tells the boys are even more compelling, with the author leading the reader toward awareness and understanding. And the illustrations, dialogue, and characterization concerning the inflatable swimming pool — no shoulds and should nots, no judgement, just priceless insight.

    Re-reading is a must with this book, therefore it belongs in a child’s personal collection.

  7. G. Perry says:

    I love this book, both the kindness and gentility it teaches, and the art, which is just stunningly beautiful..

    Posted by the typo-king of this here website. (My secret, is a wonderful editorial angel who has pulled me out of typo purgatory countless times, without complaint. Her name shall remain confidential, but she walks in light..)


  8. Anita says:

    Gordon: Thanks for the post; I corrected those typos for Mary D…

  9. Beth Redford says:

    Every time I read Zen Shorts I think of another thing I have “carried long enough.” Enough depth for many, many rereadings.

  10. This looks wonderful! I am going to request it from the library today. Thanks, Anita!

  11. Anita says:

    Briana: Glad to introduce this gem to you.

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