Before the Star: The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park
My father collects tears.
That is what they are called, the pearls of swap that seep out of a tree when the bark is cut. Maybe they are called tears because it seems as if the tree is crying.
They are not beautiful trees. Their branches are stunted, knotty, spiny. Their leaves are a dull grayish green.
My father has to see inside each tree.
A boy and his father search an arid, rock-strewn landscape in search of the straggly trees which can yield their valuable pearls, the congealed sap called myrrh, used for perfume, incense, medicines, and embalming fluid. The father's skills recognize just the trees ready to give up their sap as the valuable "tears" which are indeed "pearls of great price" in the marketplace.
On one such expedition the boy spots a huge pearl, a single handful for the young boy, and his father lets him harvest it gently, with just the right twist to keep it intact, worth much to the spice traders in the town.
And soon the two take their basket of harvested treasures to market, where they find three buyers waiting, sitting cross-legged and sipping tea in the spice merchant's tent. The lad is dazzled by their brilliantly colored robes, red, blue, and gold, so different from his and his father's rough gray clothing.
The man in red greets my father. "We are buying gifts," he says. "We have some already,but we wish to buy one more. Something special."
My father nods at me. I give the basket to the merchant. With practiced fingers, he culls through the tears and places several of the largest on a cloth. In the center is my pearl.
The three men examine the tears. They speak to one another in a strange language. Finally they look at the merchant and my father, and they nod.
"We have a gift of gold, and a gift of frankincense," says the man in red. "Now we will add to them a gift of myrrh. The gifts are for a baby."
There the story of the proud little boy and his pearl of myrrh ends, but the reader knows that this episode is but the prequel to the Nativity story as narrated in Matthew, Linda Sue Park's just-published The Third Gift (Clarion, 2011), gorgeously illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, deserves a special place in this year's new books for Christmas.
In text as spare as the landscape but poignant with symbolism, Park portrays the father's gentle instruction and the boy's pride in their shared find as they present their prize for sale. Ibatoulline's subtle gouache and acrylic illustrations of a landscape done, except for the royal-robed Magi, in subdued sepia shades. appear almost as if shrouded in history. The figures and faces of father and boy are given expressive detail, while the barren landscape and the Nativity scene itself are shown in minimalist style, the stable as a rough opening in a dusty, rocky hillside where only the approaching shapes of the Wise Men on their camels reveal the identity of the baby for whom the gift was intended.
Linda Sue Park, a Newbery medalist, and Bagram Ibatoulline, noted illustrator of the modern Christmas classic, Great Joy by Newbery author Kate DiCamillo, are a perfect pairing for this gentle but deeply meaningful story of a small boy who unknowingly plays an important part in the Nativity.