Transcript from an interview with Jon J Muth

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jon J Muth. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Jon J Muth

Meet Jon J Muth

My name is Jon J Muth and I'm a writer and illustrator of children's books. I've written and illustrated The Three Questions and Stone Soup, and Zen Shorts and Zen Ties. Now I've also had the chance to illustrate other author's works, like Old Turtle and the Broken Truth and Come On, Rain! and I Will Hold You 'Til You Sleep. And I also got the chance to illustrate a book of poetry edited by Caroline Kennedy, called A Family of Poems.

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Tricycles and cherry trees

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and I guess it would be considered a suburban neighborhood. A lot of the houses I notice look a lot like the ones in Zen Ties or Zen Shorts. My mother and father were both going for their careers as teachers so they were not there a lot. I was effectively raised by my great grandmother, who was 72 at the time.

She would walk me to school because before I woke up, my parents would be gone and I'd only have like an hour with them at night before I fell asleep. She'd walk me to school, which was like a mile and then she'd come to pick me up, you know, a mile again, then at lunch time. If we went grocery shopping we'd walk another three miles. Here was this 72-year-old lady who was very important in my life.

I remember growing up and I remember growing up in this neighborhood where we had a cherry tree in the backyard and I can remember riding my tricycle — if I could ride it fast enough, I can remember floating up around the top of the cherry tree — if I could just go fast enough. I also remember one time a leaf following me home from school. That was the first day my grandmother couldn't come to pick me up was the day that leaf followed me home.

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The two teachers

I had decided not to go to college because what I wanted to do was paint a certain kind of painting that was not being taught in school at that time. They were teaching conceptual work and that was a very strong drive in the art schools when I was graduating high school. I enrolled in a couple of different colleges and ended up not in fact going after I saw the curriculum.

I ended up taking a very kind of lowly apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I needed a job to live because my parents had moved out of the area. I ended up getting a job in a frame shop. In that frame shop they also did painting, conservation and things like that. I met my first mentor in the back room there. He was an abstract Neo-Dadaist. And boy, that wouldn't have been my first choice for a teacher, but knowing him was a phenomenal experience.

His name is Ballory Barack. He's still painting in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I learned so much about the materials and he had such a sense of craft. The strength of what I got from that relationship can't actually be measured. I dedicated Zen Shorts to him.

My second teacher was a painter who did, for a long time, a lot of illustrations. His name was Jeffrey Jones. He and I began corresponding and we met a few times and then he was moving from the city to upstate New York and so he invited me to come and share a studio with him. So I made the move from Ohio then to New York.

He and I shared a studio for about a year. And that, like I say it was informal and as much as we were just painting in the same place, but I learned a great deal from being around him and seeing what it was like to actually be an artist functioning in the world. That's where I got that information. I don't think you can teach that in an art academy.

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How it all began

I was living in New York and I realized that I had to figure out some way to make money. I think I came to New York with about $500. I was painting a lot, but I was down to the wire. My friend Jeffrey Jones asked or said that he could introduce me to a friend of his who maybe I could get a cover, doing a cover for a magazine.

It was for a comic magazine called Epic Illustrated. At the time this was when Marvel Comics had started doing, creator-owned comics. I said, "Well, you know. I'll just do a couple of images," and I did the few images and it became a story. I did a three-page comic book story. I did the word balloons and everything, but I thought I'd show this to the editor and maybe he would find a way for me to do book covers from seeing what kind of work I could do.

And he bought it. He bought the story! This really surprised me. Through that I got into comics and started doing more comics and became very, very interested in the relationship of words to pictures and our perception in relationship to both of those — the triangulation between the reader and the words and the pictures and how that works.

That informed my work in children's books a lot afterwards. I worked in comics for about 20 years, I think. Towards the end of the time that I was working in comics, my first son was born. I wanted to talk about different things. It was really important to somehow address different aspects than I had previously been addressing in my work and comics — different aspects of life.

I just wanted to explore this relationship with this new little being. I was fortunate enough to be invited by Kodansha, a Japanese publisher, to do an eight-page a month series in one of their Manga magazines, but it ran for three years. They said pretty much just do whatever you like. I painted a story that worked the way a comic book works, panel by panel. It ran, it was a serial story of a father and son, so I was able to go through work, through the feelings I was having as a new dad. It ran for three years in Japan.

They collected the first year and I thought it would be nice to find an English language publisher. I brought it back and all the comic book companies were saying, "This is really great, except it's really a children's book," and I said, "Okay," so I took it to Scholastic. At the time they were not doing any kind of graphic novels.

They said, "Well, this is great, but we're not doing graphic novels." And I said, "Oh, okay." I went home to try to think of what else I might do. I got a call then from David Sailer at Scholastic asking if, he said, "I know you weren't looking to do children's books, but there's this text that came in and would you mind just taking a look at it and see what you think." He sent me, Come On, Rain!, which became my first children's book.

As soon as I read this wonderful story by Karen Hess, it just fully bloomed in my mind. I knew exactly what the little girl looked like. I knew exactly where she lived. I knew everything because her writing is so magnificent. The timing was perfect. That's how it started.

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The authentic mark

I think the best way to describe it is when I was a younger artist and I was making marks on a page, there were marks that when I got them right, they had a certain quality and I couldn't describe to you what that quality is, but I just knew it was authentic and it was right.

The place that I encountered similar marks was in Asian art — in Japanese paintings, landscape painting and calligraphy — and Chinese painting. There was something about those marks that was very alike — the work that I was making and the work that they were making. I wanted to know more about the culture that produced people who would make that kind of work.

I kind of entered into an interest in Asian art sort of from the surface down and I became more interested in the people and the culture and the spiritual life of people in the East. It's interwoven now through all of my work and my life.

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Whenever someone becomes a parent, it's a big deal. I just was poorly prepared. I was overwhelmed, it was a kind of, for me, very personal spiritual experience, that's the only way to describe it. It just changed everything in the sense that I felt completely responsible for this little being and as his custodian, I wanted to make the world a better place.

I don't think that's a particularly unique feeling, but I do think that my way of handling it wasn't the best and it ended up, I mean, it's eventually kind of rippled out into the work that I'm doing now, so I'm very happy about that, but it was a very difficult time. Growing up as an artist, it's a very selfish profession. The job description is that it's about you, you, you — your sense of how the world works and so on.

Suddenly here, and it's not about me; it's about someone else and by extension it's about everyone else. That was my experience of it. The kind of work that I could do in comic books at the time was not a place… comic books just wasn't a place that was going to have room to explore the kind of thing that was becoming important to me.

I'm thankful now though the industry has changed and certainly with book publishers putting out comic books there's a lot more themes that are being explored. That's really marvelous. But the things that I was doing in comics was more adult-oriented, more young man-oriented. Things that you know where you're considering your spot in the universe and the angst you feel about the absurdity of life and so on.

But it's not taking any responsibility for any of that. I felt like I needed to kind of work my way around to understanding what this meant. That just sort of naturally came out in children's book. The first one that I wrote and illustrated which was The Three Questions. I had heard this story a long time ago. I had read the story and then I was reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh who was a Vietnamese monk and very well known and wonderful author, and he retold the story in one of his books — the story by Leo Tolstoy.

When I read it in his book it just was like this little deep laid dynamite charge going off and I thought, I want to give this to my son. I want to give this to children. But they can't have to wait until they understand Czarist Russia to be able to work with it. That's how that story started for me.

That was a kind of major turning point where I thought I'm able to explore the things that are really important to me right now in this medium and I'm really amazed and happy that the children's book world has had room for me.

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I have no idea how that panda showed up. I mean, I really don't. I first, I did, I was just working with the brush and ink and I did this drawing of this panda wearing a very fat pair of pants. It was hilarious to me, but I didn't know what to do with it. He looked pretty amused. I just put the drawing aside and didn't think about it.

A little while later, I was thinking what would it be like to have been a little boy like myself growing up the way I did in middle America, but to be living a few doors down from a spiritual teacher. That was what started that story. When I saw the drawing of the panda I said, "That's the guy. It must be him." But I didn't start out thinking about how can we get a panda in here?

As a matter of fact, there's this really neat thing, when I was on tour with… I think it was the Zen Shorts had just come out, and so I was going out and getting a chance to visit a lot of different schools, and that was really wonderful. There was a little girl who came up to me after I had done a presentation and she said to me, she held The Three Questions up and she said, "So is the little panda that gets rescued in The Three Questions… is that Stillwater?"

I said, "Yes, it is!" But I hadn't thought of it before that. I love the things I get from my readers, I really do. I think they tell me much more than I could know about what it is that I'm doing.

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Zen Shorts

I think children are intuitively capable of grasping wisdom as readily as adults are. There's the kind of practical wisdom that we encounter every day that children need to know about. They need to know that we're actually you know, that if you put your hand on a hot stove you're going to be burned. They need to figure out how the world works so they look to us to know how that works. It's very important for us to impart this practical wisdom.

I also think that we have an opportunity to offer up what I call prudential wisdom, it's a sense of your relationship to those things that you can't change, and sometimes it manifests as a spiritual wisdom or a spiritual teaching. Zen Shorts seemed like a perfect place to offer these stories.

It's very important to me not to offer something that's going to inoculate them from their own experience. I want children to recognize that what they're actually going through is valuable. Their experience of something is important to the way they're going to look at the world. It would not work if the stories were more didactic. They need to be offered in such a way that kids can take them or leave them, and perhaps if they don't understand something, return to it.

I've actually had that happen a bunch where kids will maybe come to the story first of all just because it's a giant panda, but then return to it because it's created a kind of itch in their mind and they can't quite understand it or it actually, it flies in the face of what they think. By returning to it and considering it and mulling it over they have a chance to come to a new understanding of how things are.

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When I start out working in the mornings, I'll often warm up by using a large brush, just to get my body moving and to get my arm loose and to bring just some sense of concentration still-pointedness into the process and begin from that point. I'll do a big giant brush drawings on the floor of my studio and you may walk in, you know, after I've been there for a half an hour and the whole floor is papered with drawings and everything. Then I'll move into the specific tasks of which page is going to happen today.

I often do pages many, many times because there's some quality I'm looking for that's not — that may not be quite right. There was a page in Zen Shorts that I ended up doing seven times and finishing all seven pages just to be able to get that precise quality which I can't even tell you, I don't even know what it was, but I knew when the page was right. That was the reason for doing that. I do that often. I repaint and repaint and repaint and rewrite and rewrite. That seems to be my process.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl