A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.
Dell Yearling, Random House Books, New York, 2001.
MG historical fiction, 152 pages plus extra back matter.
2002 Newbery Award Winner.
Lexile: 920L .
AR Level: 6.6 (worth 6.0 points) .
This novel follows a 12th century Korean orphan who is happy at first just to scrounge enough food to survive, but gradually becomes immersed in the world of the master potters of Ch’ulp’o, known for their breathtaking celadon ceramics.
I was first given this book back when it was released and a friend told me I had to read it. For whatever reason I resisted. Perhaps because I didn’t care much for historical fiction at the time. Another reason could have been the nearly all-male cast. Tree-ear’s world is full of men and boys, with only one female character of any notice. While it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, the characters do come from a wide economic spectrum.
And, for that matter, the historical fiction aspect is superbly done. This novel is one to beat for the balance of keeping modern readers interested and involved while still preserving a sense of an ancient culture. For example, I was impressed with the way the lone female character, while not holding any official power, was still able to influence events and could make subversive choices.
The only thing I did find odd was the references to Crane-man and Tree-ear by an English translation of their names. While I understand that certain aspects of the plot wouldn’t make sense without knowing the meaning, a few mentions of the meaning would have made more sense to me. This was especially notable since they were the only characters referred to this way.
There are a few points for teachers and parents to consider. Suicide is mentioned in two different contexts, once in a past heroic act, and once as a character considers suicide before regaining hope. Tree-ear faces a good deal of ableism, and the society in general is patriarchial and in many ways exclusionary. Most of these made sense to me given the specific historical context of the novel, although I did feel the character considering suicide wasn’t truly necessary. For the rest, Park does a good job of negotiating the historical realities and a broader modern perspective.
As you might recall, I also enjoyed Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. Thankfully she has a substantial backlist and I look forward to reading more of her work. While this is a middle grade book, A Single Shard is one of those rare middle-grade reads that could also be appreciated by older readers and even adults.
As you might have guessed, I highly recommend this book. I only wish I’d taken up my friend’s recommendation and read it sooner myself.