Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Muth, Jon J., The Three Questions. New York: Scholastic Press, 2002. Print.
This illustrated children’s book by Jon J. Muth was adapted from a short story by Leo Tolstoy, and it is a story that is loved by children and adults alike. Nikolai is a boy who yearns to be a good person, but he doesn’t know how, so he asks himself three questions: “When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”
His quest to find the answers puts him face to face with Leo, the turtle, who is an astute sage. Nikolai helps Leo and rescues a panda and her cub from a terrible storm. Through his actions, the boy finds the answers to his questions and, in so doing, discovers the truth about life. It’s a lesson the reader experiences with Nikolai and one well worth learning.
Muth’s story is beautifully told and rendered in subtle watercolors by the author, who is an accomplished painter. In the afterward, Muth revealed that his son, also named Nikolai, modeled for the depiction of the boy in the story. The artist credited his own dog for inspiring the image for Nikolai’s feisty canine friend, Pushkin. Muth’s daughter, Adelaine, is portrayed as the rescued panda cub, and the author paid homage to Tolstoy in the form of the wise turtle, Leo.
Muth’s work is widely recognized in both comics: Moonshadow, The Mystery Play, The Sandman: The Wake, and Swamp Thing: Roots and in children’s books: Come On, Rain!, Stonecutter, The Christmas Magic, and Zen Shorts. His awards include the Eisner Award for comic painting excellence, the Caldecott Honor Book recognition for Zen Shorts, and the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators.
One aspect of Muth’s work which is particularly interesting is that he went from illustrating comic books and graphic novels to children’s books. He said that working on comics was a good artistic outlet for some of the “angst” prevalent in life in his younger adulthood, and when he had children, he found himself gravitating toward children’s book illustration as a natural outgrowth of his love and appreciation for being a parent. This artistic evolution is evident in his reimagining of Tolstoy’s classic short story and bringing its life lessons to a new generation of readers.