Park, Linda Sue. The Third Gift. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
Quiet and lustrous, this spare story by the Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park distinguishes itself from the jingly, jangly stuff that crowds most bookstores this time of year. Taking us back more than 2,000 years ago to a desert in the Arabian Peninsula, the author focuses on a son who accompanies his father as they go about their work, which will ultimately play a surprising role in a particular Biblical story.
Throughout The Third Gift, Mr. Ibatoulline (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) provides finely detailed acrylic-gouache paintings that focus on the white-robed pair. He first shows them resting beside a tough, gnarled tree with spiky-looking tufts of dull green sprouting here and there. The backdrop of bright desert light reflects motley shades of tan, gray, bisque, and alabaster. This harsh region is where the two go about collecting “tears” of myrrh.
We follow the boy and father as they trudge through the heat and dust, looking for the right trees to cut for the precious sap that provides their livelihood. Touchingly, the father saves the best for his son. “Look,” he says, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointing to the biggest tear. The double spread shows how the boy carefully twists off the sap, just as he has watched his father do. Then he holds it in his palm and sniffs “its sharp, bitter sweetness.”
In time, the two walk to the market, where the father knows the spice merchant will pay him good money for his harvest of tears. The myrrh will be used for medicine, flavoring, or, in the case of superior ones, as incense at funerals. On this day, three men in splendid robes are eager to buy one more gift to add to their already-purchased gold and frankincense. The strangers select the very best tear, the one the boy collected. Strangely enough, it turns out the men are intent upon presenting such gifts to a baby.
We last see the boy in a state of silent wonder, as the three men ride on their camels through the desert toward Bethlehem.
The Third Gift is an unusually thoughtful and bittersweet story that shines a light on ordinary people in a historic place and time. The author’s note provides details on myrrh, on her inspiration for this work, and on the Nativity story.
Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books.
For other sensitive holiday picture books, see my post “A Time for Peace” and these fine new ones: