• Title: The Three Questions
  • Author: John J. Muth
  • Publisher: Scholastic
  • Year Published: 2002
  • ISBN: 0439199964
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People;  Book Sense book of the Year finalist (now Indie award).

Author information: Jon Muth has written many titles for children, including Zen Shorts, which was a Caldecott honor book. His website is rather disorganized and confusing; it seems to be the website of an art agency by which Muth is represented. It includes news about the author, such as recent awards his books have won and interviews. The website also includes a biography, in which Muth states that his desire to work in children’s books stemmed from a desire to explore his feelings as a new father. Prior to this work, Muth focused his artwork on comics.

Readers annotation: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?

Summary: Nikolai wants to be the best person that he can be, but he doesn’t think he can do this without knowing the answers to three questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? He asks his friends, a bird, a dog, and a monkey, what they think the answers could be, but their responses leave him unsatisfied. He decides to journey to see Leo, a wise turtle, and get the answer from him. He helps the turtle dig in his garden and later rescues a mother panda and her cub. After this, Leo gives him the answers to his questions based on his experience, saying that the best time to do things is always no, the most important one is the one you’re with, and the most important thing is to do good for the one standing at your side.

Evaluation: I think this is a wonderful book, and one that both adults and children would benefit from reading. Nikolai’s story is intriguing and builds suspense; the reader becomes invested in learning the answer to Nikolai’s three questions as well as in his adventures along the way. The answers that Leo provides are satisfactory and heart-warming, and the way he uses Nikolai’s experiences of helping in the garden and saving the pandas to illustrate this moral is beautiful. The soft and mellow nature of the illustrations sets the tone of the book and are visually captivating. This is the type of book that readers will want to revisit many times.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  The artwork in this book is beautiful and the plot and moral at the end are thoughtful and impactful without being didactic.
  • Popularity: 4/5 This is a quiet and not very flashy story. It doesn’t have bright drawings or a lot of action that some kids may enjoy. However, it has a great quest storyline and a valuable moral at the end that most readers will enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: morals, anthropomorphic animals, quest narrative, soft illustrations.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers who liked the provocative and thoughtful questions of The Three Questions, Chris Raschka’s Little Black Crow may be a good fit. This title is about a boy who asks a crow more than twenty questions about its hopes, ambitions, and love, which echoes the storyline of The Three Questions.
  2. Once Upon a Memory by Nina Laden could be a good fit for young readers with a philosophical bent. This book asks a series of questions relating to memory, and the illustrations are muted in a way that is reminiscent of Muth’s title.
  3. Muth’s Zen titles, such as Zen Shorts, Zen Ghosts, and Zen Ties have a similar artistic style and have similar morals.

Book talk ideas: The questions are the focus of this story, so I would start by telling potential readers that Nikolai is searching for the answers to three questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? I would then ask what they thought the answers to these questions are. Then I would tell them that if they read the book, they could discover the answers that Nikolai learned.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Nikolai learned an important lesson? What did he learn?
  2. The illustrations in this book are soft and muted. How does this enhance the story?
  3. If you had to answer the three questions right now, what would your answers be?

Reason for reading: I read this title after discovering Muth’s work through Zen Shorts, a Caldecott Honor book. I very much enjoyed Zen Shorts and the other Zen books, but this title captivated me in a way that they didn’t, and in fact, that few picture books I’ve read this semester did. Although it only received minor honors (it was a Book Sense finalist and was on a NCSS/CBC list), I felt it was important to review based on my strong feelings for it. With its beautiful, soft illustrations, I am surprised it did not get nominated for a Caldecott. Overall, this is probably one of my top three picture books I’ve read for this class.

Additional relevant information: This would be a great title to give as a graduation present or gift for other milestones in life, due to its positive message and beauty. I work with a teenage youth group and read this story to them and it resonated with this age group as well, showing that this title can appeal to a wide variety of readers far outside the scope of the declared 4-8 year old range.

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