Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Single Shard

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. Library copy. Audiobook. Middle Grade/YA.

The Plot: Imagine being an orphan in a time where family is the most important thing. Imagine living under a bridge, scrounging for food. Imagine having a dream -- a dream not of a warm bed or hot food; but a dream to do something. To create.

Tree Ear is an orphan in 12th century Korea. When admiring the pottery made by Min, Tree Ear accidentally breaks a piece. To pay off his debt, Tree Ear starts working for Min. Tree Ear hopes to become a potter, like Min; but it seems all Min wants Tree Ear to do is the hard manual labor: chop wood, dig clay.

Tree Ear is sent on an important and difficult journey: to bring two sample pots to the royal court, so that Min may achieve his lifelong dream of a royal commission. Right before Tree Ear sets out, Min breaks the news to him that Tree Ear will never be taught how to be a potter. It is a craft handed down from father to son; not taught to orphans. Tree Ear must still deliver the pots; but what happens when he is attacked by robbers, and the pots are shattered? What does Tree Ear owe to Min, and to himself?

The Good: Wow, wow, wow. What a great book!

This isn't an "action adventure" book; it's a quiet book, that takes place over almost two years, as Tree Ear learns that the craft of being a potter is more involved than simply sitting down at a potter's wheel. Tree Ear, and the reader, learn about how a pot was crafted in 12th century Korea, starting with the clay and ending with the firing.

Interesting questions are also raised; Min's final pots use a process invented by another potter. At what point is it OK for Min to copy that process? Who "owns" an idea?

Tree Ear is fortunate; while he is an orphan living under a bridge, a homeless man, Crane Man, looks after him. While they don't have possessions, Crane Man loves Tree Ear and takes care of him, teaching him morals, values, and a way of living. Begging: no. Working? yes. Crane Man teaches in such a way that Tree Ear reaches his own conclusions. Once Tree Ear starts working for Min, Min says he cannot pay Tree Ear. Tree Ear receives a daily meal; and that meal becomes important, because not only does it give Tree Ear one good meal a day, Tree Ear brings the leftovers home to Crane Man. Min's wife treats the boy kindly; and soon, without a word ever spoken, Tree Ear is taking enough food home for both Crane Man and Tree Ear to have dinner.

Other good things: Tree Ear's journey is not just to the royal court and back again. It's a journey of independence, as he makes his way in the world; it's a journey of family, as he enters the sphere of Min and his wife. It's becoming part of society, not an outsider. It's about learning the true value of things. Because of all of this, A Single Shard is also a rich, full look at another way of life; another time; another place. It's rather amazing how much one learns about twelfth century Korea.

Linda Sue Park's website includes photos of Korean pottery. It's nice to "see" what you've just read about.

Links: Teacher's Guide.
Swarm of Beasts review.
The Times (UK) review.
What I'm Reading (Linda Sue Park's blog).


Imani said...

An acquaintance of mine who has some connection to the publishing house that released the book just recommended it to me. I really will have to go purchase it now, your review made it sound so well done.

Liz B said...

It's an almost flawless book, very well written. I learned a lot about Korea & pottery yet never felt as if I were being lectured; it was all part of the story.

This is an almost quiet book, tho; not very actiony/adventurey, so it's not going to be for every reader.