February 21, 2008


Zen Ties. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

Ibby’s Magic Weekend. By Heather Dyer. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      There is magic in both these books, but magic of very different kinds – the one quiet and gentle, the other surprising and rambunctious.

      Zen Ties, as you can guess from the title, is the quiet book, as were Jon J. Muth’s previous Zen Shorts and The Three Questions, the latter based on a Tolstoy short story. This time the story is Muth’s own, based in part – as he explains at the end – on his family experiences, and on a camping retreat by the end of which the students had learned a valuable lesson. The story here is simple: a panda named Stillwater greets his visiting nephew, Koo, at the train station, and interacts with him in quiet, zen-like ways: “It is a short walk to the house, but there is a nice park on the way. Let’s stop there and have some tea.” The illustrations are charmingly naïve: at the park, for example, the balloons join the pandas in sitting quietly, each balloon ties to its own rock. Koo, for his part, speaks in haiku-like verse much of the time – another charming element here. What action there is in the story comes after three children named Addy, Michael and Karl get together with the pandas, and the whole group goes to visit old Miss Whitaker, who is always nasty to the kids but who is a friend to Stillwater. Predictably, the children learn to appreciate Miss Whitaker, and her hardheartedness is softened when she has the chance to tutor Michael, who is preparing for a spelling bee. Stillwater and Koo are clearly emblematic of quiet acceptance and enjoyment of life – that is, of a zen attitude. Seeing the pandas acting quite at home on an ordinary suburban street will be a treat for young readers; so will Muth’s illustrations, every one of which is quietly celebratory of the everyday. This is a story set in summertime, but its loveliness knows no season – or all of them.

      Ibby’s Magic Weekend has its charms, too, but they are more of the madcap variety. Heather Dyer, whose specialty is gentle absurdity (as in The Girl with the Broken Wing and The Fish in Room 11), here concocts a story of a girl (that would be Ibby) who does not believe in magic at all – she knows everything is just tricks, done with smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. Then Ibby spends the weekend with Francis and Alex, her troublemaking cousins, and things suddenly get rather more magical than Ibby ever thought possible. There’s the time she walks into Francis’ room and finds Alex floating near the ceiling. And the time Alex turns up on the church steeple and has to be rescued by a helicopter. The time Francis becomes invisible. And much more. What causes all these happenings is a box called “Magic for Beginners” that lists seven tricks but warns that they “are undertaken at the magician’s own risk.” The box belonged to Uncle Godfrey, who simply disappeared – Ibby’s mother never told her how, and it takes a while for Ibby to get up the courage to ask Aunt Carole. This leads to – well, that would be telling. Suffice it to say that Uncle Godfrey’s disappearance is solved, Ibby becomes not only a believer in magic but also a practitioner of it, and by the end there is a hint of even more marvels to come (not necessarily in a sequel – but readers will be hoping for one).

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