Thursday, December 8, 2011

4. The Third Gift

Written by Linda Sue Park
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Houghton Mifflin, 2011
$16.99, ages 7-10, 32 pages

A father and son walk a desert collecting tears of sap for market, not yet knowing that the largest of those pearls will become a gift for a baby named Jesus.

Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park joins with renowned illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline to weave a captivating tale about myrrh, the third gift given by the wise men to the Christ child.

Imagining a father teaching his son how to gather the treasured resin, Park describes the two walking with a basket, water-gourd and an ax across a landscape almost entirely of sandy rock to a grove of stunted and spiny trees.

The boy's father kneels by one of the gnarled trees "to see inside."  Gently, he feels the bark with his hands, and plucks off a leaf and sniffs, to determine whether its myrrh is ready to be harvested.

Finding a tree that is aged just right, he carefully selects a spot to wound, to cut a shallow X, so that the tree will weep. Then, making the cut, he watches as the sap bubbles up into a big tear.

After waiting for the tear's surface to dry into a shell, the father twists the resin off with his fingers and places it in their basket.

On this day, as the two are finishing their harvest, they see the biggest tear yet. It's the size of a hen's egg and the boy's father gives his son the honor of teasing it off.

This tear and the others will bring good money at the spice market. Some people will buy them for medicine or to flavor wine, but most will purchase them for embalming loved ones.

Two weeks pass and soon it's time for the spice market. As they arrive to sell their tears, they're ushered into a tent where three wise men are waiting.

Speaking a language the boy and father don't know, the wise men reach into the basket and select the boy's tear to add with their gifts of gold and frankincense for baby Jesus.

But why myrrh? Could these men foresee the baby's death?

Though the story is speculative, it feels like a window into the past, as if thousands of years were rolled back, and readers were invited to see what really happened.

Park's words are beautiful and spare, while Ibatouilline's paintings are so finely rendered, at times they look photographic.

This is a gorgeous book that pulls readers in and stays with them, like something experienced rather than just read.

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