New book features haiku with fewer rules


Jon J. Muth reads from his new book, “Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons,” which follows Koo the panda and his two young friends throughout the year. (Christina Barron/The Washington Post)
March 4

You may have learned about a form of short poem called haiku. Perhaps you were asked to write one using the five-seven-five formula: one line of five syllables, one line of seven syllables and a final line of five syllables.

Jon J. Muth wants to free would-be haiku writers from the limitations of five-seven-five.

The children’s author and illustrator told kids gathered last week at Barston’s Child’s Play, a toy store in Washington, that Japanese, the language of original haiku, has sound parts that are different from English syllables.

With Japanese haiku, “sometimes the first line will be just one word,” Muth said.

So for his new book, “Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons,” he ignored the poetry rule he was taught in school.

Eating warm cookies

on a cold day

is easy.

This poem — and 25 other haiku in the picture book — take Koo the panda and two young friends through the seasons. There’s no story, just moments captured in a few words alongside Muth’s gentle watercolors. The first page of “Summer” features the young boy and girl holding glowing jars as Koo stares into the sky.

Tiny lights

garden full of blinking stars

fireflies

The children’s characters are inspired by Muth’s 6-year-old twins, Molly and Leo, who also gave him the idea for a book of poetry.

“I was listening to them explain to one another how things work,” he said. “It felt like poetry. It felt like haiku.”

Muth said the twins aren’t interested in poetry more than any other kind of writing. But neither was he as a child growing up in the 1960s in Cincinnati, Ohio. Muth’s mom was an art teacher and took him to many museums. It’s not surprising how he spent his free time.

“I drew and drew and drew,” he said.

He developed a fascination with Asian art after seeing a painting called “Ju (Big Tree).” The painting was shaped like a tree but also was the word “tree” in Japanese calligraphy. Muth was hooked.

“I wanted to know more about that culture,” he said.

After studying Asian art and illustrating comic books for 20 years, Muth began to illustrate and write children’s books. He introduced kids to an Asian form of storytelling called Zen tales through a series of books about a giant panda named Stillwater. One of the books, “Zen Ties,” features Stillwater’s nephew, Koo, who speaks only in haiku.

Muth said he isn’t using the new book to criticize the way haiku has been taught in schools. He said five-seven-five is an easy way for kids to learn about poetry and begin to write it.

“But I wanted to go back to the inspiration of the poetry in the first place,” he said.

So, “Hi, Koo” is less about form and more about “the wonder of the world as it is.”

Christina Barron

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