Monday, December 31, 2012

315 (2012 #60). A Single Shard

by Linda Sue Park,
read by Graeme Malcolm

This 2002 Newbery Medal winner is set in Korea in the 12th century.  Orphan Tree-ear lives under a bridge with another beggar, an older cripple called Crane-man.  Tree-ear admires the work of the famous local potter, Min, and when he accidentally damages some of his pottery, he must go to work for him.  Tree-ear volunteers to take a sample of Min's work to be considered for a royal commission, a long and arduous journey by foot.

This seemingly-simple story is full of lovely imagery and characters to care about.  Here's an example of the former:

Once...he had watched the potter place a plum branch in a finished vase to judge the effect.

The gentle curves of the vase, its mysterious green color. The sharp angle of the plum twigs, their blackness stark amid the airy white blossoms. The work of a human, the work of nature; clay from the earth, a branch from the sky. (p. 52)

There's even a discussion of intellectual property rights:
Tree-ear spoke slowly. "It is a question about stealing." He paused, starting to speak, stopped again. Finally, "Is it stealing to take from another something that cannot be held in your hands?"

"Ah! Not a mere question but a riddle-question, at that. What is this thing that cannot be held?"

"A - an idea. A way of doing something."

"A better way than others now use."

"Yes. A new way, one that could lead to great honor."

Crane-man lay back down again. He was silent for so long that Tree-ear thought that he had fallen asleep. Tree-ear sighed and lay down himself, thinking, thinking....

...And therein lived the question-demon: If Tree-ear were to tell Min what he had seen, would that be stealing Kang's idea?

Crane-man's voice startled Tree-ear.

"If a man is keeping an idea to himself, and that idea is taken by stealth or trickery - I say it is stealing. But once a man has revealed his idea to others, it is no longer his alone. It belongs to the world. (p. 62, 64).
(Although I have to admit, I felt some sympathy for poor Kang.)


In an interview in a teacher's edition of this book, Park said "three ideas - the pottery, family, and journey - are the basic threads of the story."  Research on Korea for her earlier books showed "that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Korea had produced the finest pottery in the world, better than even China's, and I decided to set my third novel in that time period," according to her Newbery acceptance speech.*

According to the interview, "the idea of family...is crucial to Korean society:  I made Tree-ear an orphan because I wanted to explore what family means to someone who has no blood relations....

I also wanted to write an adventure story because I loved reading them when I was young, and still do! I love traveling...So I knew right at the start that I wanted Tree-ear to go on an exciting journey." 
 [And, according to her Newbery speech, her son, an admirer of Newbery Honor Book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, "wanted me to write an adventure story, a road book."]

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Linda Sue Park writes, “Every piece described in the book actually exists in a museum or private collection somewhere in the world.”  Her website has some photos of celadon work and other items and locations that are mentioned in the book (spoiler alert), including the Thousand Cranes Vase (pictured below left). More on Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) celadon can be found on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.

I thought it was interesting that in her Newbery acceptance speech, Park, who is of Korean heritage but only visited the country as a child, thanks Simon Winchester, author of the bestseller The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, for his descriptions in his earlier book Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, as his 1987 walk went on the route from Puyo almost all the way to Songdo.

She also credits 1966 Newbery Medalist I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino.  "In that book, the orphaned black slave Juan de Pareja becomes an assistant to the painter Velazquez and is eventually freed by his master, which enables him to pursue his own painting career. The ending speculates on how a certain Velazquez work came to be painted, just as [A Single] Shard speculates about that [Thousand Cranes] vase."

This is a quiet book that might take more than one reading to be fully appreciated (it did for me).  Kids probably won't pick it up on their own (the cover pictured above or at right don't help; a newer cover pictured below right is at least more attractive).  However, it would be a good addition to a study of Korea or Asia or pottery.

Graeme Malcolm is alright as the audiobook narrator, but I found his British accent - especially his pronunciation of "ate" as "et" - distracting.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I also referred to a teacher edition print copy I own. 

*Park, Linda, "Newbery Medal Acceptance," Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2002, Vol. 78, Issue 4, pages 377-384.]
Thousand Cranes Vase  / CC BY-SA 3.0
Latest cover of A Single Shard

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