Friday, March 8, 2013

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Eyes tap-dance as Linda Sue Park explains the spur-of-the-moment decision to give her Newbery medal for A Single Shard to her dad at the ALA awards ceremony in 2002. The auditorium went from noisy to dead silent as I walked to the edge of the stage to hand Dad the medal. "I'm thinking to myself, why is it so quiet?" and wondered if the audience didn’t like the gesture so I joked at the podium, “Dad, you had better leave that to me in your will.” Later she found out it was quiet because people were so moved they were crying. "I heard Bruce Coville blew his nose in the tablecloth," she laughs. Some time later, Linda Sue’s mom called to complain that her dad was “out-of-control,” still showing everyone The Medal. Linda Sue told her mom that it was okay and the excitement would soon wear off to which her mom said, “No Linda. You don’t understand... He just showed the UPS man!”

This is just one of many unforgettable stories Linda Sue Park shared at a recent visit to our school where she inspired kids to read and write. A master storyteller who drops a trail of historical breadcrumbs, I learned that the Japanese kidnapped Korean potters because they would not share their trade secrets around the 1600's; the Thousand Crane vase that inspired her to write, A Single Shard, is owned privately by a museum that opens two times a year (and even then there is no guarantee you can see it because it is only shown during a ceramics exhibition); that first-time authors have to sell a minimum of about 5,000 books after publication in order to get a second printing, and more.

Now take a close look at the actual Thousand Crane vase on the left. The potters used an incising technique to carve out the intricate patterns, filling in each incision with different colored clay during the 12th century. The complex firing process is simplified for her book, but you get the idea. This craft required a high level of skill.  A Single Shard is about celadon pottery and focuses on the story of an orphan boy, Tree-ear, who desperately wants to learn this craft. He secretly watches the master potter, Min, then sneaks a peak at a piece of Min's work only to break it. The two come to an agreement that Tree-ear will work for Min to "pay" for the broken pottery. Thrilled, Tree-ear nurtures the hope that Min will teach him the craft, but this is a trade that is closely guarded and a potter doesn't share his skills with anyone, especially an orphan.

Tree-ear puts up with Min's verbal abuse and works hard to be respectful even when he wants to shout back at Min, instead focusing on the kindness of Min's wife, who gives him extra food. As thanks, Tree-ear does small chores for her around the house. At one point he loses hope of ever learning anything about becoming a potter, "How much slower the work when the joy of it is gone," but later he finds a new outlet. The homeless Crane-man is a cripple who has raised Tree-ear since he was a toddler under a bridge. Crane-man's wisdom and  love help Tree-ear deal with the reality that the potter doesn't want to teach him his trade. "My friend, the same wind that blows one door shut often blows another open." Tree-ear's determination to make his dream come true is not completely extinguished, "The flame of hope that burned in him was smaller now, but no less bright or fierce, and he tended it almost daily with visions of the pot he would make."

Min is such a perfectionist he only makes a dozen pieces of pottery a year. In order to make a living, he needs a royal commission. When Tree-ear travels to court on his behalf, all sorts of things go wrong starting with him spotting a fox, a symbol of bad luck to Crane-man and Tree-ear. The fox foreshadows Tree-ear's future suffering and through his experiences, Tree-ear decides to face the true meaning of family, courage, and responsibility.

The plot is beautifully written with interweaving action, symbolism and emotional turmoil. All the characters grow and change. Tree-ear's character is like the best Korean pottery that reflects the "radiance of jade and clarity of water." Tree-ear is like a shard of pottery; his family is broken but his character radiates all that is good in a person and he chooses kindness over hate, honesty over stealing, courage over fear, and respect over anger. Tree-ear could hate Min and feel betrayed that he won't teach him, but he chooses to focus on kindness in others. He could tell Min about Kang's new design but he got the information from spying, so he doesn't say a word. He could have given up going to Songdo but doesn't give into fear. Crane-man offers comic relief and changes internally by swallowing his pride to help Min's wife. Even the supporting characters such as Kang are likable and interesting. He does things fast, is not meticulous, and takes risks with his designs. He's not as good as Min because of his personality.

I am struck by Tree-ear's efforts to make his world a better place, and to make himself a better person. After spending the week with Linda Sue Park, this is a message she stresses to the kids. She ends all of her talks telling students to read because reading will give them knowledge and that they can use that knowledge to make their part of the world a better place. I know she makes the world a better place. Read her books - the simplicity and straightforwardness make for much thought and while that sounds contradictory it is also the magic of children's literature.

Reading level 6.7
Fountas and Pinnell: U
5 Smileys

1 comment:

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