A Single Shard is a quiet book about a boy living in a small coastal village in mid to late 12th century Korea. The boy called Tree-ear has lived most of his life under a bridge with Crane-man, who although poor and disabled, took him in when he was orphaned as a young child. Tree-ear and Crane-man live in poverty, struggling for each meal, but their life together is rich in love and companionship.
Tree-ear is fascinated with pottery, which his village is famous for. He spies on the potters while they work, wishing he could learn the skill. He gets his chance when he begins to work for Master Min, the best potter in the village. Tree-ear hopes to become Master Min’s apprentice and learn how to make pottery, but the gruff Master keeps him busy chopping wood, collecting clay from the river bank, and refining the clay for pots and glazes. When Tree-ear finally gets up the nerve to ask Master Min to accept him as an apprentice he learns that the pottery trade is handed down from father to son. Master Min’s son died and an orphan like Tree-ear could not take his place. The news devastates Tree-ear at first, but if he cannot learn how to throw pots on the wheel, he will teach himself to mold clay into figurines.
When an emissary from the royal court travels to his village looking for a potter to award a royal commission, Min’s pottery, although finely crafted, loses to Kang’s innovative new technique of inlay. Master Min’s only chance for consideration is to incorporate the inlay technique into his pottery and send an example to the court. Min cannot travel the distance over mountains to reach the court, so Tree-ear offers to deliver the beautiful vases for him.
Tree-ear sets out on an adventure that will take him over mountains, through many small villages and a big city. Most people are kind, but Tree-ear knows there are dangerous animals and bandits along the way that he must avoid. Unfortunately, he cannot avoid the bandits. They steal his money and throw the prized pots over a cliff. All that is salvageable from the beautiful pots is one single shard. It takes all of Tree-ear’s courage to fulfill his duty.
Through Tree-ear’s chores, the reader learns about the process of pottery making in the 12th century. In a voice that is gentle and at times poetic, Tree-ear reveals his thoughts and feelings and shows us the culture and society of that time.
Linda Sue Park, a Korean American, won the Newbery Award and many others for A Single Shard. She has written numerous novels, and picture books for children.