61 pages 2 hours read

Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


A Single Shard (2001) is an award-winning, middle-grade historical novel by Korean American author Linda Sue Park. Park has written multiple children’s books, picture books, and volumes of poetry. Some of her better-known titles include A Long Walk to Water (2010), The Thirty-Nine Clues series in nine volumes (2010), and Prairie Lotus (2020). Much of her historical fiction is based on Korean history.

A Single Shard is intended for readers in grades 5 to 7, though the novel can be appreciated and enjoyed by adults as well. It describes a year in the life of Tree-ear, an adolescent in 12th-century Korea, whose dreams of becoming a master celadon potter lead him on a dangerous journey to the royal court in the city of Songdo. A Single Shard won a Newbery Medal in 2002 and received an honorable mention for the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the same year.

All page citations in this guide are based on the Kindle edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

A 12-year-old orphan named Tree-ear lives under a bridge with an old man named Crane-man. Tree-ear is named after a mushroom that grows on the trunks of trees without any parent seed—a fitting name for an orphan. For his part, Crane-man was born with a twisted foot and calf that require him to walk with a crutch and stand on one leg like a crane. Tree-ear and Crane-man survive by foraging for food in the forest and scavenging scraps from the trash heaps of the village’s residents. Despite their poverty, they have an optimistic attitude and a strong family bond.

Tree-ear’s life takes an unexpected turn one day when he pauses to watch a master potter named Min at work in his yard. Tree-ear is fascinated to see a vase take shape on the potter’s wheel and longs to learn the art.

After accidentally breaking a nested box that Min made, the boy volunteers to work for the potter without pay for nine days. He secretly hopes that Min will teach him his trade. Instead, the potter sends Tree-ear out into the forest to chop wood for the communal kiln where all the potters fire their creations. At the end of nine days, Tree-ear is no nearer his ambition of learning Min’s craft, but the old potter agrees to keep him on indefinitely as an assistant without pay. By law, Min is required to feed Tree-ear lunch, so Min’s kindly wife provides a meal each day for the boy, which he then shares in the evening with Crane-man.

Weeks turn into months as Tree-ear learns many of the skills of glazing and firing clay but is still never allowed to shape a pot on a wheel. Soon, the village is abuzz with news that a royal emissary will be visiting the local potters to award a valuable palace commission to one of them.

One of Min’s competitors has discovered a way to incise colored designs on pots. This technique has never been tried before. Min attempts to duplicate the result, but the heat in the kiln spoils his glazes so he has no good samples to show Emissary Kim. Kim is sympathetic and believes in Min’s skill because he has seen the potter’s previous work. He invites Min to send new samples to the palace for consideration.

Since the potter is old, he is unwilling to make the trip to the capital in Songdo himself, but Tree-ear agrees to carry his samples there. On the way, Tree-ear is attacked by bandits who smash the two priceless vases he is carrying. The boy is only able to salvage a single shard. Undeterred, he completes his journey and demands an audience with Kim. The emissary is so impressed with the craftsmanship of the single shard that he awards Min a commission on the spot.

Tree-ear returns with the joyous news only to learn that Crane-ear died in an accident during his absence. His sorrow turns to joy when Min and his wife adopt Tree-ear, and he becomes Min’s official apprentice. In later years, Tree-ear becomes a master craftsman who creates a beautiful, incised vase—the real life "Thousand Cranes Vase" that is prized as a Korean cultural treasure to this day.

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