The Three Questions
Muth (Come On, Rain!) recasts a short story by Tolstoy into picture-book format substituting a boy and his animal friends for the czar and his human companions. Yearning to be a good person, Nikolai asks, "When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?" Sonya the heron, Cogol the monkey and Pushkin the dog offer their opinions, but their answers do not satisfy Nikolai. He visits Leo, an old turtle who lives in the mountains. While there, he helps Leo with his garden and rescues an injured panda and her cub, and in so doing, finds the answers he seeks. As Leo explains, there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one 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." Moral without being moralistic, the tale sends a simple and direct message unfreighted by pomp or pedantry. Muth's art is as carefully distilled as his prose. A series of misty, evocative watercolors in muted tones suggests the figures and their changing relationships to the landscape. judicious flashes of color quicken the compositions, as in the red of Nikolai's kite (the kite, released at the end, takes on symbolic value). An afterword describes Tolstoy and his work.
--Publishers Weekly, Feb.11, 2002, starred review
Nikolai wants to be a good person but believes that he needs guidance. He has three important philosophical questions: "When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?" The answers will set him on the right path in life. He first asks his friends the heron, the monkey, and the dog, but their answers are colored by their own survival needs, and are helpful but not definitive. He goes to Leo the turtle, who is old and very wise. Nikolai's experiences while visiting Leo help him to find his own answers. Leo only needs to put them in words. Muth has created a magical work of depth and beauty. The deceptively simple plot is written in language that is filled with visual and auditory imagery, and yet remains accessible to young readers. The delicate watercolor paintings are exquisite. Humans, animals, and nature are depicted with supreme accuracy, while evoking a soft, gentle, dream-like quality. There are many subtle nuances that catch the eye and ear. A red kite floats through the pages, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing, but never mentioned in the text. Sometimes only the string in Nikolai's hand is seen, and sometimes only the kite itself with the string trailing down. It is not seen at all during his adventures at Leo's home, but he has brought it there. Even the characters' names-Gogol, Leo, Pushkin, Sonya, and Nikolai-are carefully chosen to pay homage to famous Russians or their creations. As for the answers to Nikolai's questions: they're just right. A soaring achievement.--Kirkus Reviews, March 2002, starred review
In Tolstoy's original story a tsar asks three questions (What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?), and he finds the answers when he unknowingly saves his enemy. Muth's gentler, simpler version is closer to a fable about a boy and his animal friends. Beautiful, playful watercolor paintings show Nikolai with heron Sonya, monkey Gogol, and dog Pushkin on the shore. The animals can't really answer the big questions so Nikolai hikes into the mountains to consult wise old turtle Leo--and while Nikolai is there, he saves a panda and her child in a roaring storm, finding his answers. Muth's large-size paintings are open and beautiful. Some of the soft-toned landscapes are like Japanese paintings, with sharply defined characters against blurry views of water, mountain and sky. Children will want to talk about the questions and answers, though a version closer to Tolstoy's original would have been more compellig: What if