A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park, was published in 2001 by Clarion.
Tree-ear is an orphan boy in a twelfth-century Korean potters’ village. For a long time he is content to live with Crane-man under a bridge, barely surviving on scraps of food. All of that changes when Tree-ear sees master potter Min making his beautiful pottery. Tree-ear sneaks into Min’s workplace and dreams of creating his own pots someday. When he accidentally breaks a pot, he must work for the master to pay for the damage. Though the work is long and hard, Tree-ear is eager to learn. Then he is sent to the King’s Court to show the master’s pottery. Little does Tree-ear know that this difficult and dangerous journey will change his life forever.
A Single Shard is a short book, but it’s wonderfully crafted and much more engaging than you would think a book about pottery would be. I found every aspect of the book, to Tree-ear sneaking through the foliage to peek at Min’s work, to working at Min’s shop, to his journey to the royal commissioner, intriguing. It’s a simple little book, but it’s full of soul and charm.
The book also teaches quite a bit about celadon pottery and Park manages to show the process without dragging the book down in unnecessary or boring detail. Even as the centerpiece of the novel, the pottery aspect is balanced just enough so that the book doesn’t seem like a “how-to” guide. Tree-ear’s wonder and curiosity helps with the balance, as well.
I can see why A Single Shard won the Newbery Medal; it’s equal parts informative, delightful, and, yes, even tense. Tree-ear is a darling protagonist, conveying all the politeness that the Korean culture requires but with the inexorable energy of youth. There are good lessons woven throughout in the shape of Crane-man’s advice to Tree-ear, never overly moralizing or out of place. And the background and content is historically rich and informative, showing off the research Park did and melding it with a delightful little story about a boy who wants to make pottery and the journey he must take to do so.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Honorable potter? Sir? Could I not work for you, as payment? Perhaps my help could save you some time…”
Min shook his head impatiently. “What could you do, an untrained child? I have no time to teach you—you would be more trouble than help.”
Tree-ear stepped forward eagerly. “You would not need to teach so much as you think, sir. I have been watching you for many months now. I know how you mix the clay and turn the wheel—I have watched you make many things…”
The potter waved one hand to cut off the boy’s words and spoke with derision. “Turn the wheel! Ha! He thinks he can sit and make a pot—just like that!”