Tag Archives: compassion

Day 108 – Zen Ties

In honor of Haiku Day on the 17th of April, we read a fantastic book: “Zen Ties” by John Muth. Sprinkled with clever plays on words, beautiful watercolor images, and some insightful and well-placed Haiku, “Zen Ties” is a sweet and gently humorous book about compassion and friendship.Zen ties

The story reintroduces giant-panda Zen master Stillwater and his three friends Addy, Michael and Karl, who originally appeared in Mr. Muth’s Caldecott Honor book “Zen Shorts”. “Zen Ties” also introduces us to Stillwater’s taciturn yet poetic nephew Koo, who arrives at the train station at the beginning of the book. “Hi, Koo” says Stillwater in greeting – foreshadowing the charming bits of poetry that Mr. Muth, through Koo, will insert periodically throughout the story.

It’s summer time in “Zen Ties”, the weather is spectacular, and there is fun to be had playing at the park with Stillwater, Koo, and the children. Michael, however, is troubled; he is nervous about an upcoming spelling bee, and he is afraid his nerves are going to keep him from doing well. Stillwater suggests that the children come with him to bring food for his ailing friend Miss Whitaker. The children are skeptical; to them Miss Whitaker is the angry old lady on their street who is always yelling at them to get out from in front of her house. However, despite Miss Whitaker’s initial gruffness and her blue mood (she appears to be lonely and tired), the visit goes rather well; the children clean around the house and spend time painting pictures for Miss Whitaker. Stillwater suggests that Michael might like to come back the next day. When they return on the morrow, Stillwater explains that Miss Whitaker used to teach English and might be able to help Michael prepare for his spelling bee – which she does, gladly.

Eventually, the children and Miss Whitaker become fast friends, visiting frequently and enjoying apple tea together. Oh, and about that spelling bee: Michael makes it through all the way to the end and has a ribbon to share with Miss Whitaker. When Stillwater walks Koo to the train station at the end of the book, offering to dispose of his tea cup for him, Koo shakes his head:

“Nearing my visit’s end,

summer now tastes of apple tea

I will keep my cup”

I adore this book. I’m not really even sure where to start. The book is very well written – as noted below, Mr. Muth takes care to say what he has to say in the most efficient manner possible – and he manages to work in some humor in the process: “What would you do if you were in a spelling bee?” Michael asks Stillwater…”I would spell words,” he answers. Stillwater’s quiet confidence is comforting as well; you know that if you stick with him, everything is going to work out just right. Mr. Muth’s illustrations are captivating – expressive and colorful – adding heart to the story. My favorite picture was of Miss Whitaker at home alone in the evening after the children’s first visit; she is sitting in the dark peering through a magnifying glass to get a better look at the paintings the children left behind. The connection between Miss Whitaker and the children by the end of the book is inspiring; it always makes me choke up a little when Karl tells Stillwater that Miss Whitaker had been yelling at them just that morning. Stillwater asks “Why are you smiling?” and Karl says, “She was telling us to get out of the street and play in her yard”. Most of all, however, I love the sense of caring and community that shines through in this story.

About the Haiku – I did notice that Koo’s poetic interjections are not truly Haiku in the way Americans know it – with three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. When I first read this book, I thought it was odd to see the obvious play on words with Koo’s name, but not see any true Haiku…as I knew it. In fact, if you read Mr. Muth’s author note (well worth the time, by the way), he makes that point that the rigid 5/7/5 structure is actually an attempt in English to “create an analog with the Japanese language”. Rather than adhering to those particular numbers of syllables, Mr. Muth tries to “have the discipline to say what (he wants) said in the fewest words. It doesn’t always work out to be seventeen syllables”, an interesting lesson in and of itself.