July 12, 2007

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

I had never heard of A Single Shard. Perhaps you haven't either. We both should have; it's a fantastic book, and definitely one of my favorite Newbery's I've read this year. It's only a few years old, which surprised me. The tone and themes of the book made me assume it was a much older book.

Set in 12th century Korea, Tree-ear is an orphan boy who lives under the bridge with an old crippled man named "Crane-man." They are extremely poor and mostly scavenge for food, both in the woods and in the village refuse. The village they live in is known for its celadon pottery (pottery with a greenish/gray glaze). The best potter in the village is Min, and Tree-ear loves to watch him throw pots on the wheel. Min works the slowest; rejecting pot after pot, even if they have no visible flaws, and making only one pot for the other potters' five or six.

One evening, through a series of mishaps, Tree-ear breaks a set of pots that Min has made and, after facing the furious potter, agrees to work for nine days to repay the damages. He has high hopes of getting to throw pots, but alas, he's instead to spend the long days cutting wood for the kiln. Not too thrilling. After his nine days are up, Tree-ear offers to work for the potter full-time; Min has no assistant like the other potters and he is getting old enough that it is hard for him to do it all alone. In exchange for his labors, Tree-ear will receive a daily meal.

This arrangement greatly improves Tree-ear's life. Every afternoon, he gets a delicious lunch, of which he eats only half. He then hides the remainder and takes it home to Crane-man to have for dinner. After a day or two, however, whenever he returns to get his hidden lunch bowl, he finds it completely refilled, which he soon discovers is thanks to Min's wife. Gradually, Tree-ear's tasks get more involved; he is allowed to dig the clay for the pots and even help load the kiln.

And then, from China, comes an embassy, looking for a potter upon whom to bestow a royal commission. That potter will make pottery solely for the king and must be the best potter that can be found. Tree-ear knows that this is Min's life long ambition and that, since a commission is for life and new commissions are given out only every few decades, this is Min's only chance. Will he get it? (I know, and you don't. But if you read the book, we'll both know).

The character development is rich and subtle. Tree-ear is a completely real boy (well, I've never actually been a boy, but it seemed pretty real to me); he is thrilled by new responsibilities and then grumbles about the labor involved. He volunteers to make a journey and then is terrified by the prospects of leaving everything he's ever known. Min and his wife are wonderfully round characters, with just enough history to help the reader understand why they act as they do.

The story line, while simple, is not necessarily predictable; it doesn't have that cookie cutter feel that so many adolescent books have (kid has no friends, feels alone; something happens; everything is better).

This book really is just spectacularly written. I listened to it on CD in the car and finished it in about three days. There was nothing I didn't like about this book; nothing that would make me amend my recommendation ("it's all great except for this one section. . . ").

Read this; it's fantastic.


  1. This sounds great! Like you said, it sounds different than many of the other books out there. I'll add it to my list (which is getting insanely long!).

  2. Years ago I started trying to read all the Newbery award books, then we moved and my new library didn't have a poster of them on the wall like my old library did, so I got side tracked and never continued. You inspired me to go to Google and get a list....now to try and remember when I left off!

  3. I'm living vicariously through your reviews and creating a list...for after I take the GMAT. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Okay, Janssen. We're convinced. Andrew and I just went to the BYU Bookstore and bought it--hardback, no less. Have you ever put any of your reviews on Amazon.com? They're so nicely written I think you should (maybe, in this case, dropping the CD part). We're looking forward to reading it (and maybe gazing from time to time at the celedon vase I had Heather get for Karen after Bart's mission); it sounds like one that will slow down Andrew's flossing though!

  5. Aunt Miriam: here's the list I'm going off of http://www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberywinners/medalwinners.htm.

    Dad, I think you and Andrew will really love this book, even if it does slow flossing down to half hour task. I'm excited to hear what you think of it!

  6. I hadn't heard of this one either, which surprises me somewhat. I like the fact that it is historical and set in Korea. I always enjoy learning about another culture and time period. We may not use it for flossing however. A History of US seems to be fitting the bill nicely there. But there are always, trips to Salt Lake, quiet Sunday afternoons, etc. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Can't wait to read it! I'm slogging my way through Room With A View so it might be a while...

  8. Thanks for the review. I am always looking for suggestions.

  9. This is a great one. The book club I'm in is doing an author study of Linda Park this month. The other two I read for it were: The Mulberry Project and Kite Fighters. Both great.


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