When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
These are The Three Questions young Nikolai asks in this lovely picture book by Jon Muth. The tale is adapted from a short story by Leo Tolstoy and Muth’s version makes it palatable for young readers. Nikolai (named for Tolstoy’s brother and Muth’s own son) asks his animal friends his questions and receives different answers from each. Only when an unexpected event calls Nikolai to action does he understand the true answers to his deep questions.
Anyone familiar with Jon Muth’s work will find much to appreciate in The Three Questions. His watercolors, as always, are gorgeous and calming. His take on the old story is unique and helps frame almost existential questions well enough that children can learn from it with very little help. Often, high-minded and wonderfully illustrated picture books are the purview of literary awards but this book and its parable are a perfect fit for quiet time with the school-aged set. The story is not too wordy and the artwork of each page is worthy of being framed (or at least made into a poster). Muth obviously felt a strong connection to the original story which he even mentions in an author’s note at the end. All of the characters are named after Russian authors or people from Tolstoy’s life (even the wise, old turtle is named Leo). The illustrated characters were modeled after Muth’s son, his dog, his infant daughter, and Tolstoy. The personal connection is clear all the way throughout. I am always in favor of finding books for kids that are fun and that foster a love of reading but it’s also good to find those rare books that inspire a child to think. The Three Questions is one of those books.
If you like The Three Questions, check out the album Post-War by M. Ward featuring the song “Chinese Translation” which was inspired by the Tolstoy original.