By AUDREY FISCHER
This year’s National Book Festival poster illustrator, John J Muth, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but found his artistic style while studying stone sculpture and calligraphy in Japan.
The son of an art teacher, Muth drew from a young age and was said to have “shown up with a pencil in hand.” He was exposed to the works of such masters as Caravaggio but he believes it is the Zen masters—and the birth of his children—that have shaped his work as a children’s book artist.
“One day I wondered what it would be like to live down the street from a Zen master,” recalled Muth. “And what if he happened to be a giant panda wearing a large pair of shorts?” The result was “Zen Shorts,” the first in a series of books with “Zen” in the title and the Buddhist philosophy in the story.
“Zen Shorts,” “Zen Ties” and “Zen Ghosts” each feature a wise panda named Stillwater who teaches life lessons. When asked how the panda got his name, Muth explained, “You can see your reflection in still water. A still mind is ready for what’s coming. But water that’s moving is in a state of agitation.”
Muth, who began his career as a comic-book illustrator, has also collaborated on graphic novels with titles like “Swamp Thing” and “Dracula.” On the other end of the spectrum, he illustrated Caroline Kennedy’s compilation of poetry for children titled “A Family of Poems.”
Behind the eclectic nature of Muth’s art is his philosophy on literature: “Reading needs to be a whole feast of different things and then children will gravitate to the parts that get hold of them and their spirit.”