Reading a new book by author and illustrator Jon J. Muth is a bit like pulling open a door and stepping into another world. Since 1999, when Come On, Rain!, his first picture book, was published, readers have eagerly awaited each new title by this talented artist. Muth's latest book, Stone Soup, a beautiful, heartwarming retelling of the traditional tale, is destined to become a classic.
Muth came to children's books through an unusual path: he has been a well-known illustrator of comic books for nearly two decades, and his groundbreaking artwork has been published in both the U.S. and Japan. After his son was born, Muth developed a comic book inspired by his experiences as a new father. One day he brought his illustrations to Scholastic Press, hoping to turn them into a book for children.
"They weren't exactly sure about publishing what I had brought them, but in the meantime, they asked if I might be interested in illustrating a manuscript they had received by Newbery Award winner Karen Hesse," Muth recalls. "The writing in Come On, Rain! was so beautiful, I immediately said yes." Come On, Rain!, the story of a young girl celebrating a summer rainstorm, earned Muth a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. In 2000, he illustrated Gershon's Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year by Eric Kimmel, which was an ALA Notable Book, winner of the Sydney Taylor Award and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.
Muth evoked his own childhood memories for the urban setting of Come On, Rain!. "I grew up in Cincinnati and can remember the intense heat of the streets in summer," says the soft-spoken artist, who now lives in upstate New York.
But Muth transports readers to a very different place and time in The Three Questions (2002), a retelling of a story by Leo Tolstoy, which Muth both wrote and illustrated. Here, a young boy named Nikolai roams through an impressionistic, magical landscape evocative of old Chinese brush paintings. Nikolai is searching for answers to the most important questions in life and finds resolution through his adventures with a panda and her child. Along the way, Nikolai gets advice from a wise turtle called Leo, named after Tolstoy himself, one of Muth's favorite writers.
Although the original tale of Stone Soup has roots in Europe, Muth has set his version in China, using Buddhist story traditions. Three Ch'an (Zen) monks named Hok, Lok and Siew, based on characters prominent in Chinese folklore, come upon a village where people are weary, suspicious and unhappy, and work only for themselves.
To help the villagers find happiness, the monks decide to show them how to make stone soup. By the end of the story, the villagers have come together in a feast, celebrating their community, and the things that make us all truly rich. Once again, Muth's graceful, impressionistic watercolors, rich with Chinese symbols, transport readers to another time and place.
Perhaps one reason illustrating children's books comes naturally to him is his ability to see the world from a child's perspective. "I have learned to make myself small and run around inside my stories, to think like a child," says Muth, who sees his role as more than just "decorating" a text. "I am interested in that "”third thing' that happens when you connect words and pictures," he says.
Looking at Muth's books, a very simple word comes to the reader's mind: magic.
Deborah Hopkinson's latest book for young readers is Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings.