Bob Seeney on Books

The Three Questions –
Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy

January, 2017

It was intriguing that the picture book, The Three Questions (2002, Scholastic Press), written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth, kept coming up in sessions I attended at the 2016 NAGC Conference in Orlando, Florida — in three different sessions, only one of which was about books and reading. I knew the title, and I certainly knew Jon Muth, recipient of a 2006 Caldecott Honor for his Zen Shorts (2006, Scholastic Press). That book introduced Stillwater the Bear, and was followed up by two more Stillwater stories: Zen Ties (2008, Scholastic Press) and his most recent book, Zen Socks (2015, Scholastic Press).

Muth, a Zen scholar, is interested in presenting Zen precepts to a young audience, precepts which are universal by the way. Zen Ties deals with compassion, friendship, and the importance of our ties to each other. Zen Socks presents the idea that on life’s journey kindness is the key. 

Although I am obviously a Muth fan, I somehow overlooked The Three Questions. Shame on me! Here is a book that I should have been sharing for several years, but this column changes that!

As the book’s subtitle Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy states, the story is based upon the similarly titled Three Questions, part of the Tolstoy short story collection What Men Live By and Other Tales (2004, Wildside Press). Tolstoy, a 19th-century author, moral philosopher, and social reformer, may be best known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, books touted as two of the most important novels of all time — quite an accolade!

In The Three Questions, Muth’s protagonist Nikolai wants to be a good person but, as he says, “I don’t always know the best way to do that.” He believes if he could find the answers to these three questions, he would know what to do.

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

His friends Sonya the Crane, Gogol the Monkey, and Pushkin, the Russian Wolf Hound, try to help him; but their answers are not quite right for Nikolai. The boy decides to go into the mountains to seek out the wise old turtle, Leo, to find his answers.

The tale unfolds in an unpredictable way as Nikolai finds his answers. I will not spoil your reading adventure and pleasure by revealing how the answers are found, but I will share the text of the last two pages of the book, where Leo states:

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 boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. That is why we are here!

Muth’s illustrations beautifully support and extend his narrative. These softened, realistic images executed in watercolor add to the mood of the story. The visual symbols throughout the book alone could provide for many in-depth discussions.

Why are books like The Three Questions important? One of the most positive developments in gifted education in recent years is the growing emphasis on the social and emotional nature of gifted individuals. Dr. Linda Silverman, a well-known authority in the field, states: “Giftedness has an emotional as well as a cognitive substructure: cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth. Thus gifted children not only think differently from their peers, they also feel differently.”*

It is important, therefore, to support and nurture the social and emotional nature of gifted individuals; and, I believe, given the added frustration of twice-exceptionality, it is even more important with this population.
Books like Muth’s The Three Questions provide a springboard for discussion and thought. Our gifted and 2e learners have a heightened sensitivity to our world, as well as a greater sense of what is right and wrong. Therefore, providing a vocabulary and an approach to discussion of these issues is crucial. The simplicity, yet complexity, of The Three Questions is certainly one place where we could start. I highly recommend this most unusual book.

*Silverman, Linda. (1993). Counseling the gifted and talented. Denver, CO: Love Press.

Bob Seney

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. He has been 2e Newsletter's children's book columnist since 2007. Reach him at

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