Zen Shorts

Written By: Jon J. Muth

Before Reading

Explore Illustrations

Bring your child’s attention to the front cover and the illustrations throughout the book. Ask your child what he/she thinks will happen in the story by asking:

What do you see on the cover?

Where do you think this story will take place?

What do you think will happen in the story?

Activate Prior Knowledge:

This book tells the story of a panda bear that uses short stories to teach three children valuable life lessons that follow the teachings of Buddha. While reading this book, your child will learn simple Buddhist teachings and you can even teach your child what it means to be “Zen” by using the Author’s Note at the end of the book! Ask your child if they know any principles about being a good person by asking “What are some rules about being a good person that you try to follow?”

As You Read

There are three distinct lessons taught in this story and with each child comes a new lesson that pertains to that child’s behavior. Each time you come to the end of a story, you can help your child make connections and understand what the character can learn from that tale by saying “Stillwater told Addy the story of Uncle Ry giving his only robe to the robber. Let’s think about why he chose to tell Addy that story.” If your child is stumped, help him/her along by giving a possible reason like, “Maybe it is because Addy gave Stillwater a cake and it made him think of a time when his uncle gave someone something of his.” You might also list certain characteristics that both the children and the characters in the story have by saying “Karl is angry with Michael because Michael won’t let him bring all of his toys to the pool. How is the monk in the story like Karl?”

After Reading

Summarize and Interpret:

Ask your child what they learned in the book. Ask them who the different characters were and what happened to them throughout the book. You can ask them more questions to further ensure comprehension:

What was your favorite part of the story? Why?

What lessons did Stillwater’s stories teach each of the three children?

What 3 words would you use to describe each child at the beginning of the story? What about after they talk with Stillwater?  How did they change?

If you could meet one of the characters in this story, who would it be? Why?

Did you learn anything in stories that resonated with you?  What did it make you think of in your own life?  Will you change anything as a result of reading these stories?

Addy, Michael and Karl each learn a really important lesson about being kind, selfless, and open-minded. Ask your child about a time when they were kind or selfless by asking “Can you think of a time when you were nice to someone even when they maybe weren’t nice to you?” Let them know that being kind is the right thing to do even if the other person isn’t so kind in return.

Activity: Writing a Letter to Stillwater


Writing a letter to Stillwater is a great way to gauge your child’s understanding of the stories in the book. Help your child write to Stillwater, telling him what s/he learned from the lessons that were taught to Addy, Michael and Karl and why they are important. Let your child grab a pencil and paper and practice their writing by trying to spell out words phonetically and help them when need be. For younger children, ask them what they would like to say to Stillwater and then you can write it down for them! If needed, here is a letter-starter:

Dear Stillwater,

We read your stories and we really liked them because…

Your stories remind me of a time when I…

Right now, <insert emotion> because…

My question(s) for you is...


Your Name

For some added fun, show your child Zen artwork (example  above, and you can also do a Google search for Zen artwork to net many results), and give him/her paint or markers to decorate the letter or envelope with Zen-like drawings for Stillwater.  If you are feeling very inspired, consider responding to your child’s letter in the voice of Stillwater, perhaps with your own story for your child!