Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard

  • This summary of A Single Shard includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Single Shard Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.

Set in twelfth-century Korea, American writer Linda Sue Park’s young adult novel A Single Shard (2001) follows the adventures of a boy called Tree-ear, who apprentices himself to a master potter. The novel was awarded the 2002 Newbery Medal and praised as “moving” by the New York Times.

Tree-ear is an orphan who lives under a bridge with his guardian, Crane-man, a physically disabled basket-weaver. Whenever he goes to the nearby town of Ch’ulp’o, Tree-ear watches the work of the local potters with fascination. He pays particular attention to the potter Min, who throws his clay in the back yard of his house, where Tree-ear can watch him without being seen. Tree-ear wishes he could learn Min’s art.

One day, Tree-ear notices that Min has left several finished pieces of work unattended in the yard. Tree-ear seizes his chance to inspect them. One of the pieces is a box, containing a nested series of smaller boxes. Tree-ear is so fascinated by it that he does not notice Min approaching him. Startled, Tree-ear drops the box and breaks it. Accusing Tree-ear of being a spy, Min starts to beat him. Tree-ear begs Min to let him work to pay for the box, and Min agrees: Tree-ear will work for him for nine days.

Tree-ear is excited to learn the art of pottery, but when he arrives for work, he is given the job of cutting wood to fuel the kiln. For nine days, all Tree-ear does is cut wood. At the end of this period, Tree-ear asks Min for a real job. Min refuses, because he can’t afford to pay him. Tree-ear insists that he will work without payment if he can learn Min’s craft. Min agrees, but instead of teaching him anything, he sends Tree-ear to the river to fetch clay.

One day, it is announced that a royal emissary is coming to Ch’ulp’o. The best potters will be offered commissions. The town’s potters begin working frantically to get their best work ready for the emissary’s visit. Tree-ear notices that one potter, Kang, is behaving oddly. He peeks into Kang’s workshop. Kang is carving out flower shapes and filling them with colored clay. Tree-ear wants to tell Min, but he feels that to do so would be stealing from Kang.

The potters set up stalls on the beach, ready for the emissary’s visit. Tree-ear is worried that Min’s is the smallest display, but Min’s stall is one of the few that attracts serious attention from the emissary. Kang’s stall receives attention too, even though he has not displayed his innovative inlay work.

The emissary leaves to continue his tour. He will return in one month to offer commissions. The potters who won the emissary’s interest frantically prepare new samples. Tree-ear decides to tell Min about Kang’s new work, and Min tries to make inlay-work of his own. However, the finished pottery is covered in brown stains. Min destroys every piece and prepares to start again, but before he can finish anything, the emissary arrives.

The emissary says that he will commission Min if the potter can bring a sample to the capital city, Songdo, but Min feels he is too old to make the trip. Tree-ear overhears this conversation and offers to make the trip on his behalf. He knows it is a dangerous trip for a young boy to undertake, but he feels responsible for Min’s failure to win a commission and sad for Min’s wife, who has been taking care of Tree-ear during his apprenticeship.

Min creates two beautiful vases with inlay-work. Crane-man makes a basket to carry the vases without them breaking. Tree-ear arranges for Crane-man to be taken care of during his absence, and sets off. He walks for days, sleeping in strangers’ homes or in the woods for safety.

Outside the city of Puyo, Tree-ear is waylaid by bandits, who steal his money and throw the vases over a cliff. When the bandits have gone, Tree-ear hurries down the mountain. Both vases are broken, but a single large shard survives from one of them, containing some of the inlay work.

In Songdo, Tree-ear has to be persistent and cunning to secure a meeting with the emissary. He explains about the robbery and shows the emissary the shard. The emissary is so impressed with the surviving shard that he agrees to give Min a valuable commission; he arranges for Tree-ear to be taken home by ship.

Tree-ear rushes to Min with the good news, only to learn that in his absence, Crane-man has died. Tree-ear fears he will have nowhere to live. Min’s wife offers to take him in, and Min agrees to teach him the art of pottery.

Exploring themes of duty and responsibility, A Single Shard also provides a lovingly-researched glimpse of Korean history for English-speaking readers. The novel was awarded an Honorable Mention at the 2002 Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature.