of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Whether he's putting his own picture-book spin on an old tale (as in Stone Soup or The Three Questions) or providing illustrations to accompany another author's text (as in the picture books Come On, Rain! and Gershon's Monster, or the children's novel Putnam & Pennyroyal), Jon J Muth shines. Muth is one of that rare breed of picture book illustrators who not only reflect the text in their art, but enhance and add to it in ways that challenge and delight the most discerning viewer. By varying his use of color and perspective to mirror the tale he's illustrating, Muth enriches the experience for both children and adults.
Stone Soup, Muth's most recent offering, is a new spin on an old tale: a trio of tricksters, with the aid of a little girl, trick the inhabitants of a village into making a huge pot of soup. But in this version of the tale, the tricksters are benevolent Zen monks, and their goal is to bring the isolated Chinese villagers together and teach them the joy of giving. Muth uses a variety of symbols from Zen Buddhism and Chinese culture in his illustrations, such as repeated appearances of the circular shape, or Zen enso, which represents enlightenment, change, and humilty, and the use of bright yellow for the little girl's shirt, symbolizing humilty or royalty. To add to the delights of the setting, the fronts of the houses look like faces, and on one page the windows (eyes) are shut, and later, as the villagers begin to get curious, their bodies appear in the windows, looking like pupils.
Muth's use of page and perspective is also notable. In Come On, Rain!, there are illustrations from the perspective of the sky and the ground, and views of hands only and feet only (one spread shows a group of hands and one lone white shoe that has been tossed into the air; that shoe captures perfectly the joy and abandon embodied in the rain dance). In Stone Soup, one illustration is from the perspective of inside the huge pot of soup, a ring of faces peering over the edge. Others look down on the village from up high or up from the girl's perspective. Muth also uses the space of the pages in varying ways. On some pages, one illustration covers the entire spread, and on others, groups of smaller images appear. These shifts always match the flow of the text: as we get more into the story, the illustrations tighten, and as the story ends, the illustrations widen out again, releasing us from the tale.
The colors themselves also correspond with the movement of the stories. In Stone Soup, they often start off muted, and then as the villagers come together, the colors get bolder and brighter, as in the bright orange carrots and bright red smock of the scholar. Gershon's Monster is dominated by subtle blues, yellows, and browns, reflecting the serious tone of the story. Come On, Rain! is dominated by the hazy shades of a hot summer, with flashes of brightness in the swimsuits of the children.
Jon J Muth has been increasingly active over the last several years, illustrating
several picture books and writing a few of them as well. One hopes that we will
continue to see more excellent work from him in the years to come.