Zen Ties by Jon Muth.
Scholastic Press: NY, 2008.

Stillwater's (the giant panda) nephew Koo comes to visit. Stillwater and Koo meet Michael, Addy and Karl to play. When the older boy mentions he must study for a spelling bee, Sillwater invites them to visit old Miss Whitaker. The same Miss Whitaker who yells at them when they are playing. Sillwater wants to prepare soup for her and encourages the kids again to come and help. While he serves her, the kids help clean and draw pictures. The youngest boy notices for the first time that Miss Whitaker is not well. When they come the next day and talk with her, the kids learn Miss Whitaker used to teach English, and she offers to study with Michael for his spelling bee.

Muth's story of community awareness, service, and connections has several nice points. The giant panda plays with the kids and gives gentle teachings-realizing the grouchy sometimes just need help or attention, giving service to the elderly and infirm, enjoyment of a job well-done, and even not wasting. There is wordplay (including the title) and quiet humor. There is sharing and the coming together of friends, old and new. Plus a nice surprise for Michael (planned by Stillwater) that Miss Whitaker can help him. Muth also scatters haiku throughout to focus strong statements or truths into a few simple words as is the Zen practice.

The artwork is stand-alone quality. Beautiful watercolor pictures, with just a few highlighting, vibrant colors. The end pages are interesting, with Stillwater and Koo doing control exercises (tai chi?).

This is the third Stillwater book. The last one, Zen Shorts, received a Caldecott Honor in 2006. I haven't read the first yet, The Three Questions. I did enjoy the stories and artwork of Zen Shorts, but I found it to be a little choppy and more heavily teaching than Zen Ties. Rereading it, however, helped me to see it more clearly. I think the reader's mood is more important while reading Zen Shorts (requires more focus), and possibly it is best with repeated readings.

related-helpfulness, neighbors, brothers and sisters, giant pandas, generation gap, old age, service, friendship, human connections, community, modeling behavior, giving, play time with giant panda
RL=2nd-4th, mostly read aloud to toddler-2nd

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