The Simple Gift

by Steven Herrick

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How does the picture book The Arrival by Shaun Tan link to The free verse novel The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick?

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Both of these unusual and creative works of literature are linked in terms of theme and quest. Though they are different on many levels in that The Arrival is what Tan calls a "silent narrative" while The Simple Gift is a story told with multiple narrators and in poetic form, both share a quest and both demonstrate at least one theme in common.

In Tan's picture book (more aptly called a graphic novel as it differs from a picture book through what Tan calls the "emphasis on continuity"), the hero leaves his beloved wife and daughter in quest of a new land and a new home to set up a safe refuge for them. In Herrick's free verse novel, the hero, a sixteen-year-old named Billy, silently leaves his father's home in quest of a new land and a new home where he can be free to live without the tyranny of an abusive father and free to pursue his self-education through reading beloved books.

In Tan's story, the theme of community and friendship is central to the final outcome and to any measure of peace the hero has once he arrives in his new land. He meets people who have similarly escaped hardship, people with whom he shares facts and incidents through pictures they draw for each other. He meets strange, interesting and helpful wildlife creatures who remind him of the love that exists next to the dangers in life.

In Herrick's story, the theme of community and friendship has the same import and significance while serving the same function. Billy meets Old Bill and they forge a friendship. It is one that is at first uneasy on Old Bill's part and one that later costs him a dear struggle to honor. Caitlin and Jessie enter into the community that has Billy and Old Bill at its center.

Another theme each shares is that of strangeness and threat in a new land. The hero of Tan's book encounters strange sights, household objects, animals, ways of doing things, foods to eat, and ways to live. He encounters threatening things like the authorities who examine him and decide his fate: will he stay or will he be sent away? Billy encounters strange ways of living, strange men, new ways of meeting his needs, and new friendships. He encounters threatening things in the presence of the Chief Librarian, though that threat soon melts into friendship:

Her badge says
Irene Thompson--Chief Librarian.
Trouble I'm sure. ...
"...we close for lunch in ten minutes.
I'm sorry. But you can come back at 2."

He also encounters the threat of town officials who are interested in his welfare and education; it is this treat that precipitates Old Bill's ultimate gift and reformation:

When young Billy
tells me about the cops
I know I have to do something.

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