Friday, March 1, 2013

Single Father's Book Club: 'The Three Questions'


Nikolai wants to be a good person, but he tells his friends, "I do not always know the best way to do that." Nikolai believes that if he has the answer to just three questions, he would always know what to do.

Nikolai poses his questions to his three friends, a heron whose name is Sonya, a monkey, Gogol, and a dog, Pushkin. First he asks, "What is the best time to do things?" Then, "Who is the most important one?" Finally, "What is the right thing to do?" The responses he receives from his friends, each of whom is absorbed in his or her own reality, leave something to be desired. So, Nikolai decides to ask the wise turtle, Leo, who lives high in the mountains.

When Nikolai finds old and judicious Leo, the turtle is struggling to dig a garden. Nikolai, who is more fit, decides to help. Not long after Nikolai finishes digging Leo's garden, it begins to rain and the two hear a cry for help from an injured panda. Nikolai helps the panda to safety and treats her injury. When the panda awakes, she asks Nikolai about her baby, so Nikolai immediately goes to find her, too.

The next day, all is well again. However, Nikolai laments being unable to learn the answers to his question. Leo then explains that Nikolai has found his answers through his actions: There "is one important time, and that is now...(the) most important one is always the on is always the one you are with... (and the) most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side."

The Three Questions is a very lovely parable written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. According to Muth in his author's note, the story is based on a Leo Tolstoy's short story. Muth obviously adapts the story for a younger audience, and models and renames the characters after Russian writers, Tolstoy's wife, and Muth's own son and daughter. Tolstoy himself, "Leo," is the turtle.

Muth is quite talented as this book indicates; he not only gently and skillfully adapts the story, but he also created the illustrations that bring the story to life. The illustrations are done in watercolor, a medium with which Muth clearly has had a great deal of experience. The paintings are wistful and tender and convey to the reader a certain warmth. In the depictions of Nikolai's three friends, the reader can clearly sense Sonya's pride, Gogol's playfulness, and Pushkin's sense of responsibility. Nikolai himself represents the sort of boy, playful, honest, and intelligent, with whom anyone would want to be a friend and who anyone would also want to be.

In short, good things, including questions and friends, come in three's, and `The Three Questions' is just about as perfect a book as one will find.

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