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The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good

Book By Jon J. Muth

“The swiftest path to God is through service to His creation.”

As a true lover of picture books, any wander in a library or bookstore will inevitably find me in the children’s section, carefully going through each shelf looking for a new discovery – that hidden gem of a book which will transport us and relay, in the simplest of terms, the most profound ideas.

The Three Questions was one such find I made over a decade ago in a small bookshop, long before I had children of my own. I just knew there was something between these pages I would reach for again and again and hopefully, one day, share with the little people in my life.  As it turns out, the message of this story is an elegant and priceless guide for all ages and times.

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Based upon a short story by one of my favourite authors, Leo Tolstoy, writer and illustrator Jon J. Muth has thoughtfully reimagined the original, powerful parable and paired it with gorgeous, luminous illustrations in order to make it’s vital wisdom accessible to a younger audience.

Set in a kind of magical natural landscape of big sky, forests, oceans and mountains, The Three Questions begins by introducing us to a young boy by the name of Nikolai. Nikolai is a very self-aware and reflective child, given to  thinking deeply about how to be in the world. He is uncertain about the right way to act, “I want to be a good person” he tells his friends “but I don’t know the best way to do that.”. If only he had the answers to his three questions, he would always know what to do:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?

His friends, all animals with Russian inspired names, are sympathetic to his plight and try to advise him the best they can from their own experiences and observations. Perhaps “you will know when to do things if you watch and pay close attention” suggests the monkey, the most important ones are “those who make the rules” declares the dog and the right thing to do is to “fly” says the heron.

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor

Although he loves his friends and appreciates their effort, Nikolai is not satisfied with their suggestions so he decides to journey high into the mountains and ask Leo, the wise turtle who “has lived a very long time” and surely must have the answers he is seeking.

When he finally arrives at Leo’s home, Nikolai introduces himself to the old turtle, whom he finds in a garden and asks his three questions. Leo listens but does not respond. Since he is so elderly, digging is difficult for him and upon noticing this, Nikolai asks to help him and takes over with the shovel.

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor

Just as he finishes turning over all the rows, a wild storm bursts forth and they turn to head for shelter  when Nikolai hears a cry for help. He rushes down the path, following the cry to a forest where he finds a panda lying injured by a fallen tree. Nikolai carefully carries the panda back into Leo’s home, making  a bamboo splint for her leg before tucking her into bed.

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor || Pandas

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor

The storm rages on and when the panda awakes suddenly to ask “Where am I? Where is my child?”, Nikolai runs back out of the cottage into the rain and wind, down the path and back farther through the forest searching for the panda cub.  Eventually he finds her cold and shivering on the ground and, cradling her in his arms, sprints back to warm and dry her before gently placing her in her mother’s arms.

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor || Pandas

The next morning, Nikolai’s friends travel up the mountain to make sure he and Leo stayed safe during the storm and though he is happy to see his friends, and feels a great peace within himself for helping the panda and her child, he still has not found the answers to his questions and so tries one last time:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?

“But your questions have been answered!” Leo says to him. Nikolai does not understand and so Leo explains by recalling the events of the past day – from helping him dig his garden to making a splint for the panda’s leg to caring for her baby, Leo observes that Nikolai did what needed to be done at the moment it needed to be done for the person who needed it most:

“Remember then that 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. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”

So many immensely profound themes in one deceptively simple story. The sparse style in which is it written, without much descriptive language, not only makes it easy to read but serves to highlight the depth of the fable with little distraction – leaving space for the reader to pause and reflect on its true meaning.

Nikolai is polite, friendly and likeable. I adore the fact that not only is he open to questioning how to be in the world, but that he is discerning about which answers he accepts. He doesn’t judge his friends for their views but he also doesn’t feel he has to agree with them. He understands that with age comes greater knowledge and, like children everywhere, doesn’t forget his questions even as he gets busy with travelling and then helping Leo and the pandas. I confess that every time I read this story, I pray that one day my children are as thoughtful, well-mannered and polite as Nikolai. He just seems like such a good kid.

And that’s because he is a good kid. In this story, Nikolai is the archetypal good person. One who helps others easily and naturally, with care and consideration –  and without any anxiety about giving of himself.

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This way of being of service to others is the essence of khidma, a fundamental teaching of Islamic manners and one that lies at the heart of being a good person in this world. The Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, taught us that the most beloved of people according to Allah, is the one who brings the most benefit to others (Tabarani, Hasan)  and that the basis of doing good is having good manners (Bukhari).

Children are natural helpers who readily act in the moment. They are the first to pick up the shovel and dig with you, answer a cry for help or go searching to find another. They do this with little thought, often sacrificing their own comfort and rarely expect anything in return other than the situation itself being resolved.  Part of the joy in reading this fable with them is being able to reaffirm their primordial instincts as being precious and valuable.

In a world where, on many days, things may seem particularly overwhelming, The Three Questions is a refreshing reminder that no matter how large the task, how difficult the journey or how numerous the challenges, each of us can still be a force for good in this world. We need only to centre ourselves in the moment, cast a glance around and act immediately,  with generosity and kindness, to the ones standing closest.

 

The Three Questions should be available at your local library or favourite independent bookshop (USA, UK). You can read Tolstoy’s original story here.

MAMANUSHKA.com || The Three Questions: A Timeless Fable On How To Be Good || Jon J. Muth || Picturebooks || Watercolor || Pandas

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2 Comments

  • Reply sirajunmunira November 12, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Mashallah! What a lovely book! My husband told me Tolstoy was a convert to Islam or that at least was very interested in Islam and I think there is a film called The Last Stop or something where he makes sajda in one of the scenes. I wonder if this story is drawn from a sufi teaching story or something similar. Thanks for sharing and this post really makes me think!

    • Reply Mamanushka November 23, 2016 at 12:10 am

      Yes! This is so interesting about Tolstoy. I find his life fascinating. While writing this post I came across the following quote, which is from a short biography he wrote about the Prophet Muhammed (peace & blessings be upon him):

      “…the indisputably well-established fact is that the Muslims, in the early days of Islam, were recognized for their abstinence in the false world, pure conduct, uprightness and honesty so much that they amazed their surrounding neighbors with their noble manners, mercy and kindness.”
      I thought this a lovely inspiration for exactly how we should be in our communities – people of “noble manners, mercy and kindness”.

      I also found this excerpt from a letter he wrote a Russian woman who had contacted him asking for advice as one of her sons wished to become Muslim:

      “As far as the preference of Mohammedanism to Orthodoxy is concerned, I can fully sympathize with such conversion. To say this might be strange for me who values the Christian ideals and the teaching of Christ in their pure sense more that anything else, I do not doubt that Islam in its outer form stands higher than the Orthodox Church. Therefore, if a person is given only two choices: to adhere to the Orthodox Church or Islam, any sensible person will not hesitate about his choice, and anyone will prefer Islam with its acceptance of one tenet, single God and His Prophet instead such complex and incomprehensible things in theology as the Trinity, redemption, sacraments, the saints and their images, and complicated services.”
      (I believe this was written in 1909)
      -AM

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