Acclaimed author-illustrator Jon J Muth was inspired to write his new children’s book Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons after spending time with his young twins, listening to them as they tried to explain something about the natural world to each other. “I found that they were just speaking so poetically—in very brief sentences, the things they’d say would be what you’d say if you were six—but their words began to sound like haiku to me.” In his author’s note, Muth describes haiku as “like an instant, captured in words.”
The book, which includes 26 haikus about the four seasons, came as something of a surprise to Muth, who confesses he hadn’t planned on doing anything “poetry related” so soon after finishing the illustrations for Poems to Learn by Heart, Caroline Kennedy’s second poetry anthology for children. “I kind of got filled up—I’d been living with poetry, eating, breathing, and sleeping the poetry of brilliant writers. It was a big responsibility. I’d go to sleep at night and worry that e.e. Cummings was coming after me, chasing me in my dreams. ‘How dare you illustrate my poetry!’ ”
Muth’s luminous, deceptively simple watercolor illustrations depict two small children enjoying an ever-changing natural world with the lovable haiku-speaking panda Koo who Muth says made his first appearance in the book Zen Ties. “That’s where we learn that Koo speaks in haiku…so when I was dealing with these things my kids were saying, it just seemed like a natural pairing to include this little guy. “
Another natural pairing is that of the haiku form with the suggestive, ephemeral watercolor illustrations. Muth says that working with the notoriously difficult medium of watercolor is a challenge that “always feels a little like working without a net, but keeps it very alive.” Watercolor, Muth says, has an “immediacy, an impermanence. I really like that it fits in perfectly with my feeling about haiku.”
Though Muth is deeply appreciative of the interplay between words and images—an entirely new understanding that transcends language or illustration alone—he’s very reluctant to try to describe it. “I am inadequate to define it—and not sure I’d want to anyway.” But he knows that he encountered that magic when working on Hi, Koo! as he moved between writing and painting: sometimes from image to words, sometimes from words to image. “I’d write something; if it didn’t work I’d throw it out and continue. I’d draw something…which would remind me of something the kids had said or done and then I’d try and find a way into the words from that picture. I went back and forth.” This process ultimately resulted in an elegant simplicity that Kirkus calls “magical” in a starred review.
True simplicity, Muth says, is the hardest thing to achieve. The images in Hi, Koo! may seem joyful, even lighthearted, but Muth is a tireless self-critic, a “re-writer and a re-painter,” who often looks at his work and thinks, “I could have done that better!” and who finds himself making adjustments right up to the deadline.
Are children, with their Zen master ability to live in the moment, the ideal audience for this book? “Children are directly connected to what they’re exploring in a way that’s extremely concentrated—or can be—because their minds are developing, partly because they have no baggage, they’re not covered over in conditioning. Children’s perceptions of things: I think it’s wonderful.”
Muth pauses. “They love what they’re doing. It’s an accidentally magical moment in time.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.