Tree-ear is a 12-year-old orphan living under a bridge in 12th century Korea with the old man who raised him. Crane-man has always taught Tree-ear to honor truthfulness and work over theft, so when the boy gets a chance to apprentice to Min, the village's master potter, he takes it, even though Min assures Tree-ear he can't pay him.
Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard is a touching story of loss, commitment, and restored hope, but its great appeal lies in her detailed descriptions of celadon pottery-making. Celadon pottery denotes a style originating in China and refers to both the glaze and the color of the finished product.
We see the whole process through the eyes of Tree-ear, from the finding and cutting of the clay, to the throwing of the various objects, to the making of the glaze, to the placing of the objects in the communal village kiln. Tree-ear works very hard without complaint, and wants nothing more than for Min to eventually teach him how to throw a vase.
But behind his gruff and sometimes mean exterior, Min holds his own grief, and has determined in his own heart never to teach Tree-ear to be a full-fledged potter. Everything turns on its head when an emissary from the king comes to their village to find a potter of exceptional skill to accept a commission to work in the King's Court.
What follows is Tree-ear's greatest adventure, including a trip to the King's Court, a run-in with bandits, and a return to Min's service that brings its own reward. Park has spent much of her life researching Korean culture and history, and her knowledge adds texture lacking from much children's literature (and much adult literature, for that matter).
If you're looking for a story full of character virtues, A Single Shard is a good choice: Tree-ear is honest, hardworking, kind to Crane-man, respectful to his elders, brave, and intelligent. If you want insight into Medieval Korean culture, you'll get plenty of that, too, as Park deftly weaves details throughout her tale, especially details having to do with pottery-making.
ButA Single Shard is also just a great story, very well written and engaging. Unlike even the best Newbery-winning books, this one has virtually nothing to object to. Park is both a capable storyteller and a competent historian, making this an excellent choice for readers of all ages (this would make an excellent family read-aloud).
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