Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I drew and drew and drew and drew. Drawing was my way of making things exist which didn’t exist. And writing became a way to have my drawings interact.
– Jon J Muth, American children’s author and illustrator
After my son, Jacob, had shown me one of his children’s book, The Three Questions, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, this past weekend, as is usually the case when I am moved, I dropped what I was doing and went to the source of the book’s inspiration and went on a quest to learn more about the author, Jon J Muth. I’d forgotten, until I reread this book and Zen Shorts, another one of his books that we have, that I was dubbed the class artist throughout elementary school and had dreamed of becoming a children’s book author and illustrator when I grew up. To some extent, I still harbor those fantasies. Until then, I’ll live vicariously off of other children’s authors and illustrators whom I admire. What I learned about Muth came at a fortuitous time. Thanksgiving dinner preparation and stress aside, this is a time that, in my heart and mind, I give official thanks – as opposed to the spontaneous thanksgivings that occur often throughout the year.
I love learning about artists, whether they be visual, performing, or written word. Knowing their backstory creates a deeper appreciation and connection for me to them. Muth, who started out as an American comic book artist before becoming an award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator, was primarily raised by his great- grandmother, who was in her 70s when he was a child. His parents were pursuing their careers as teachers and he routinely woke up after they had already left the house. (His mother, an art teacher, took him to museums all over the country.) His great- grandmother walked him to school a mile away and walked him home afterwards. They walked the three miles to the grocery store together. He only had one hour in the evenings with his parents. These experiences shaped his imagination, which you can see in his work, especially when you hear him talk about his memories as a child. He found an outlet for those memories and childhood imagination – lucky for us. In one story, he thought if he could ride his tricycle as fast as he could around the cherry tree in his backyard, he could lift himself up and float around the top of the tree. In the second story, the one time that his great-grandmother couldn’t pick him up from school a leaf followed him home. These whimsical stories made me miss those years when my kids told equally magical stories to help them make sense of the world around them, to empower them in a world that is at once enormous, scary, enchanting, and full of possibilities. After all, that’s what stories do. That’s why storytellers exist.
The Birth of the writer and artist
In an interview, Muth discussed his evolution from creating comic books to writing and illustrating children’s books, saying, “A sense of joy is what moved me from comic books to picture books. My work in children’s books grew out of a desire to explore what I was feeling as a new father.” Not unlike many of us, Muth said he was “poorly prepared to be a father” and “overwhelmed,” but that he underwent a “personal, spiritual experience.” He noted, “I felt completely responsible for this little being. As his custodian, I wanted to make the world a better place.” Muth acknowledged that this act is somewhat universal, but how he handled it as an artist was not.
“Growing up as an artist, it’s a selfish profession. Your job description is you, you, you. It’s the sense of how the world works and suddenly it’s not about me. It’s about someone else, and by extension it’s about everyone else. That was my experience of it,” he said. For 20 years, through his work in comic books, Muth explored the theme of young man and adult full of angst about the absurdities of life but without the sense of responsibility to address those absurdities. Then Muth read the Tolstoy story that Vietnamese monk Thich Nat Hanh retold in one of his books. “When I read it in his book, it just was like this little deep-laid dynamite charge going off, and I thought, I want to give this to my son. I want to give this to children. But they can’t have to wait to understand Czarist Russia to be able to work with it. That’s how that story [The Three Questions] started for me,” he said. “That was a kind of major turning point where I thought I’d be able to explore the things that are really important to me now in this medium and I’m really amazed and happy that the children’s book world has had room for me.”
Wisdom at any age
Muth tackled his book’s weighty subject matter without reservation. “I think children are intuitively capable of grasping wisdom as readily as adults are,” he said. “There’s the kind of practical wisdom that we encounter every day that children need to know about. They need to know that …. if you put your hand on a hot stove you’re going to be burned. They need to figure out how the world works, so they look to us to know how that works. It’s very important for us to impart this practical wisdom. I also think that we have an opportunity to offer up what I call ‘prudential’ wisdom – it’s a sense of your relationship to those things that you can’t change, and sometimes it manifests as a spiritual wisdom or a spiritual teaching. Zen Shorts seemed like a perfect place to offer these stories.
“It’s very important to me not to offer something that’s going to inoculate them from their own experience,” Muth went on. “I want children to recognize that what they’re actually going through is valuable. Their experience of something is important to the way they’re going to look at the world. It would not work if the stories were more didactic. They need to be offered in such a way that kids can take them or leave them, and perhaps if they don’t understand something, return to it.”
I feel that returning to the story again and again is something quite important for children. So does Muth. “I’ve actually had that happen a bunch where kids will maybe come to the story first of all just because it’s a giant panda, but then return to it because it’s created a kind of itch in their mind and they can’t quite understand it or it actually, it flies in the face of what they think,” Muth related. “By returning to it and considering it and mulling it over, they have a chance to come to a new understanding of how things are.”
One of the loveliest things you will find on a webpage about him is a link to a prayer. Muth’s watercolor shows two children – a blond-haired girl and a dark-skinned boy – sitting against a backdrop of an ethereal world of oceans and wispy clouds. They are cutting out a string of connected paper dolls from one end of the canvas to the other. And scattered about the canvas is this prayer:
i am the son of a mother who’s lighting a candle beneath a photograph of a new york city firehouse
i am the daughter of a man who hijacked a plane in the name of allah
i am the palestinian boy whose father was killed by israeli gunfire.
i am the soldier who shot him.
i am the jewish girl whose brother was killed by a palestinaian while eating pizza in a mall.
i am the father in America who must protect this great country and this great way of life.
i am the daughter who jumped from the burning world trade center holding my friend’s hand.
i am the orphaned afghani boy who lives in a refugee camp.
i am the woman who led the preschoolers away from fire and falling buildings.
i am the firefighter who saved your wife.
these are the ten thousand reasons to kiss your parents each day, to kiss your children, to hold dear the one you are with.
you are the ocean and each of its waves.
when i reach out to touch your face i touch my own.
What it means to be alive
In variations on a theme, he has listed in various interviews through the years his favorite things to do – flying kites, riding bikes, dancing, and planting trees with his wife and four children. In his biography, he offers: “He is astonished at his good fortune.” It’s a stunningly humble assertion. He obviously worked hard all those years and works very hard now at what he does. He’s grateful to be able to do what he loves for a living, for the better part of his day. It’s not really good fortune, although he does point to coming into situations that have opened up windows and doors for him, but what’s wonderful is the sense of feeling lucky and the acknowledgement of astonishment. To be astonished is to be vibrantly alive.Therefore, one can happily be thankful for being able to do all those wonderful things with one’s family and to be continually astonished. As an artist, Muth says, “When I am painting in the right state of mind, my hand disappears, the brush disappears, the paint stops being paint, and all that exists is the thing that’s becoming. I am all of those things at one time.” This is living fully in the moment and being awash in awe.
And the other wonderful thing about Muth? He planted a tree, had a child, and wrote a book. My spiritual connection. Many thanks on this day of thanks.