#1207 – Zen Ghosts by Jon J Muth


Zen Ghosts
Written and Illustrated by Jon J Muth
Series:  Zen Stories
Scholastic Press   9/1/2010
40 Pages   Ages 6—8

Genre:  Children’s Picture Book, Fiction
Themes: Zen Koans, Siblings, Storytelling


It’s Halloween. The trees are ablaze in fiery reds. Excited children don colorful costumes.  And there’s mystery and fun around every corner!

When Addy, Michael, and Karl finish trick-or-treating, their bags are brimming with treats. But the fun isn’t over yet. Their good friend Stillwater the panda has one more special surprise in store for them. A mysterious visitor is about to tell them a spine-tingling story—one that will fill each and every reader with wonder. (from jacket flap)

Opening Lines

“Michael! There’s a ghost outside!” said Karl.
“A what?” asked Michael.
“A big, scary-looking ghost!” said Karl.

Why I like this book

Unlike most voracious readers of children’s books, this is the first time I’ve met siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl and their good friend Stillwater the panda from Muth’s Zen series of picture books.

The illustrations are what stopped me in my tracks. I was looking at another of Muth’s books in this series, the just published Zen Happiness. Below the new release was Zen Ghosts. The cover is beautiful, though not as much as the illustrations on the pages. I saw the front lining of the cover. Five little ghosts are crossing the street. Interspersed between them are three pumpkins with skinny stick legs.  It is a fantastic painting of a ghoulishly delightful evening. Simply put, it is classic Muth.

After the three kids finish trick-or-treating, Stillwater has a surprise for them. Donned in their Halloween costumes, with the full moon lighting their way, Stillwater takes the kids back to his house. Inside is the storyteller, waiting to tell the kids and Stillwater a special ghost story.

The storyteller picks up his paintbrush. “I am going to draw you a story . . . “

A very long time ago, young girl named Senjo and her best friend Ochu spent so much of their time together Senjo’s father would kiddingly say, “You two are so well-matched, you will probably end up marrying each other!”

As happened, Senjo and Ochu fell in love. But Senjo’s father had become gravely ill.  He arranged for his daughter to marry a wealthy man.

Saddened, Ochu left the village in his boat, but running along the riverbank was Senjo. The two ran far away, married, and had two children. They longed for home. When they returned, Ochu went in first to see Senjo’s father and face his wrath for their disobedience.

The story is Muth’s version of a Zen koan titled Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated.  Muth explains koans in his “Author’s Note.” He writes, “Koans are basically questions that you have to answer for yourself. They appeal directly to the intuitive part of the human consciousness, not to the intellect. You can’t think them through.” Muth continues, explaining it all beautifully so the reader understands not only koans, but the story as well.

So I bought Zen Ghosts for the illustrations, not caring about the story itself—until I read it. It is less about Halloween and more about our duality. But then, Halloween is the perfect backdrop for such a story. People dressed as something or someone else, while remaining themselves under the costume, will help young children understand duality.

I chose Zen Ghosts because it is close to Halloween and I’ve not given you one holiday book. And what is better at this time of year than a ghost story? Zen Buddhism in children’s books sounds risky, but in Muth’s capable hands the story is not only haunting, it is inspiring. Zen Ghosts is a quiet, reflective story, perfect for helping children understand themselves a little better.

Favorite Line

Stillwater asks the kids about their Halloween costumes. Michael hasn’t decided between an owl or a pirate. Stillwater suggests he be both, but Karl says,

“He can’t be an Owl-Pirate! There’s no such thing as an Owl-Pirate! He has to be one thing.”
“He can be whatever he wants!” said Addy

The reason I like this goes back to the illustration. Karl, dressed partially in his costume, gives Addy a rather nasty look, when she corrects what he said. The look is just what you would expect for Karl’s age (looks 6 or 7). Between Karl’s posture—fists by his side—and his face—“if-looks-could-kill”—Karl is a perfectly illustrated little boy and it makes me laugh.

Back Matter

An “Author’s Note” explains where Muth got his story and a little about why he wrote it. He explains koans and duality better than I have ever heard it explained. Children will get it.

Illustrations:  Rendered in watercolor and ink.

Available at Amazon

Zen Ghosts. Text Copyright © 2019 by Jon J Muth. Published by Scholastic Press, New York, NY.

Copyright © 2019 by Sue Morris/Kid Lit Reviews. All Rights Reserved


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