Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, art by Ed Young

Wabi Sabi is a seriously gorgeous book. It’s big (the pages are 11 by 11 inches) and when you have it closed, the spine’s at the top—so you open it like a wall calendar, and it’s made up of a series of two-page spreads. The art, by Ed Young, is lovely: his collages, made of cut paper and other materials, are layered and full of texture. The colors in the book are sometimes vivid, sometimes muted: the bright green of pine needles in one spread is followed by a dusky-blue spread that incorporates a photo of Kyoto in the evening. Each spread also includes a column of Japanese characters, which turn out to be haiku by Basho and Shiki: they’re translated in the back of the book, and each one resonates, loosely, with the spread in which it appears, so it’s pleasing to flip back and look at the images again while thinking about the haiku.

The main text of the book, by Mark Reibstein, is less exciting to me than the art, but it’s well-written and interesting enough. Wabi Sabi, in the book, is a cat who lives in Kyoto: she’s never thought to wonder what her name means, but some visitors ask her master about it, and her master just says that it’s “hard to explain.” Wabi Sabi’s curious, now, and asks another cat and a dog if they know: but they also just tell her it’s hard to explain, though they each also offer a haiku that gives a little insight. To really understand her name, Wabi Sabi travels to Mount Hiei, where she meets a monkey who teaches her about beauty in the simple, imperfect, quiet, dark, and natural. Contented, she heads back to Kyoto a little wiser. The text is all presented in haibun form, which I hadn’t heard of before, but which the back of the book explains: it’s a traditional form used by Basho and others, in which each haiku is preceded by a short prose passage. Reibstein’s haiku sometimes feel lacking (e.g. “A wise old monkey/living among the pine trees/knows wabi sabi”) but are sometimes really satisfying (e.g. “Yellow bamboo stalks/bow by teahouse doors so low/emperors must kneel”).

Dogs: 273/365

Several years ago, Megan and I read a picture book called Wolves by Emily Gravett, and were struck by how funny and clever and all-around excellent it was. So when I saw Dogs while wandering through Barnes & Noble in search of a page-a-day calendar, I was really excited: Emily Gravett, yay! And I love dogs! And the cover features a dog holding its own leash in its mouth, which is pretty much unfailingly cute! So I put it on hold at the library, and Megan came over, and we read it. And, well, it’s sweet. But it’s no Wolves.

I think mostly the issue is just one of intended audience: Wolves was aimed at grades 1-3, so it’s got some good verbal and visual play happening, while Dogs is aimed at younger kids, preschool to grade 1, so it’s more basic, with simple and straightforward text. Each pair of facing pages includes a pair of dogs—or sometimes more—and follows the pattern you can see in the above “I love tough dogs/and soft dogs” spread. Page A is “I love dogs that [do/are thing x]” and page B is “and dogs that [do/are the opposite of thing x].” I can see how this is good for little kids: there’s lots of space on the page, the sentences are easy to follow and teach about opposites, and the dogs are undeniably endearing.

For a grown-up reader who isn’t reading to a kid, the art isn’t quite enough to carry the book, but it’s still pretty great. The endpapers feature black and white drawings of different dogs, labeled by breed: a happy-looking Saluki, a solid little Bull Terrier, a wary-looking [English] Bulldog, a cuddly-looking Shar-Pei. The color illustrations in the main part of the book are fleshed-out and sweet and often funny: the title page features a worried-looking St. Bernard holding a ragged toy bunny in its mouth; another spread includes a concerned-looking Westie watching a German Shepherd and another big dog tear the stuffing out of another toy; another spread includes two bigger dogs looking dismayed at a tiny Chihuahua’s loud barking. Gravett captures the dogs really well in various poses—at rest or running or playing—and the different personalities of different dogs/breeds come across.

I hadn’t heard that Jon J Muth had a new “Zen ___” book out, but then last month I read the first installment of the Book-Scout Autumn Reading List, and immediately put Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts on hold at the library.

Zen Shorts Cover ImageZen Ties Cover ImageZen Ghosts Cover Image

Zen Shorts, which came out in 2005, was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2006, and I probably first read it sometime around then. The story is straightforward and fanciful all at once: a giant panda named Stillwater moves in next door to three siblings, and becomes friends with all of them, telling them stories and teaching them how they might think about things differently. (Stillwater isn’t totally didactic, though: he asks questions, and listens, and I like how meets the children where they are, and how there’s no expectation of moral perfection.) The pictures are a mix of watercolors (for the scenes where Stillwater’s interacting with Addy, Michael, and Karl) and black-and-white ink drawings (for the stories Stillwater tells). They’re all lovely, but I especially like the watercolors, which are soft and warm, full of gentle pastel colors without being too twee. Even the endpapers, which are enlarged purple and blue versions of the part of the cover showing the cherry blossoms and Stillwater’s umbrella, are perfect. The text, meanwhile, is simple without being too simple, with funny little pieces that made me smile (like when we learn that Stillwater speaks “with a slight panda accent,” or when Addy introduces her youngest brother to their new neighbor “because Karl was shy around bears he didn’t know”). There are lots of great visual moments, too: Stillwater licking the bamboo cake-topper Addy’s brought him, while she eats a slice of the cake she’s made; Stillwater wearing swim trunks and looking only a little dismayed at a swimming pool too full of toys to swim in, and Stillwater and Karl barreling down a hill, swim-toys piled on Stillwater’s back, in Karl’s little red wagon. The stories Stillwater tells come from Zen Buddhism and Taoism, and you may have heard a least one of them before: it’s pleasing to see them illustrated with Muth’s drawings, which casts animals as the protagonists (so, for example, in the story about the monk who carries a woman across the river, the monks and the woman are all mice).

In Zen Ties, it’s summer and Stillwater’s nephew, Koo (who speaks in haiku!) has come to visit him. Stillwater takes Koo and Michael, Addy, and Karl to visit a neighbor, Miss Whitaker, who has thus far just been that-mean-old-lady-down-the-street, as far as the children are concerned. With Stillwater’s loving-kindness-style help, the children and Miss Whitaker realize that they all have things to offer each other, and to learn from each other. It’s a sweet story without being saccharine, though the plot doesn’t entirely make sense to me: if it’s summer, why does Michael have a spelling bee to study for? I guess maybe it’s late summer and he’s starting early, or maybe he’s in a special summer program, but still, a little weird. That minor quibble aside, I enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as Zen Shorts. The text is a little less playful, but the watercolors are still wonderful, full of grin-inducing details. The endpapers feature Koo and Stillwater doing tai chi/awesome partner acrobatics (Stillwater in a handstand with Koo on his feet! Koo in a handstand on Stillwater’s head!), and I love how, when Stillwater meets Koo at the train station, Stillwater’s wearing a red necktie and Koo’s wearing a red bowtie. I love the picture of Koo getting lifted into the air by the welcome balloons his uncle gives him, and how, in the next spread, when they’re having tea at the park, each balloon is tied to a rock to keep it from floating away. And the picture Karl draws of an angry Miss Whitaker is hilarious, as is the page where Stillwater’s wearing an apron in the kitchen and Karl’s eating whipped cream straight from the can.

Zen Ghosts, the latest in the series, is a Halloween-night book, and as such the color palette is darker than the others, lovely deep blues and inky blacks and purple-greys, though there’s also autumnal red and yellow and orange, with occasional flashes of grass-green. Stillwater, already dressed as a ghost, visits his neighbors just before Halloween to tell them to meet up with him after trick-or-treating because he knows someone who will tell them a ghost story. Addy, Karl, and Michael comply, and are surprised to see that the storyteller is a panda who looks just like Stillwater, though Stillwater’s also sitting next to them, listening. The story itself, which comes from a Buddhist koan, is about duality: if we have two selves, which is the true one? Can you even say we have more than one self, or is it just one self? If it’s just one, why do we act different in different social circles/contexts? This being a koan, the story doesn’t give an answer: you just have to turn it over in your mind. As in Zen Shorts, Muth uses a mix of watercolors and ink for the art in this book, and the combination works really well— I especially love the richness of the watercolors. The text of this book, since it’s a ghost story, is mostly pretty solemn, but it’s not without its funny/sweet moments, like Karl saving a bamboo-flavored candy bar for Stillwater. I also love that when Michael can’t decide whether to be an owl or a pirate for Halloween, Stillwater suggests that he could be an Owl-Pirate, which horrifies Karl, who says Michael has to choose to be one or the other. (More duality! And I love that Michael takes Stillwater’s suggestion.)