A Single Shard

by Linda Sue Park. Novel. 152 pages. Grades 4-8.
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In this Newbery Award winner, Tree-ear is homeless, living under a bridge, in twelfth-century Korea. A physically disabled man, the proud and ethical Crane-man, is raising him. Tree-ear loves to hide behind one of the master potters' houses in the village and watch Master Min use the potter's wheel to make delicate and beautiful celadon pottery. When Tree-ear accidentally breaks one of Min's pieces, he must work for Min to pay for the damage. Tree-ear's constant hope is that Min will teach him to use the potter's wheel.

Min is the best potter in the village. He is a gruff perfectionist and never displays anything but disapproval for Tree-ear's work. When Tree-ear has paid off his debt, Min agrees to let Tree-ear continue to work in exchange for food. Still, he never allows Tree-ear to try to make pottery himself. Tree-ear must collect wood to fire the kiln, collect clay from the riverbank, and filter the clay over and over and over again in pits to get the fine consistency the master needs.

When the emperor's assistant comes to the village of potters to assign a new commission, the potters become desperate, spending long hours making their best possible pieces. Tree-ear spies on one of the other potters and discovers he has created a new technique for making inlaid designs of white clay in his pieces. Tree-ear must make an ethical decision about whether or not to tell his master. He desperately wants his master to get the emperor's commission and knows that Min is the much better potter, if only he knew this new technique.

When the emperor's assistant gives Min an opportunity to show that he too can create pots with this new inlay technique, Tree-ear must travel on foot for days to bring the samples to the emperor's palace. This is his first experience away from the village. When thieves attack him and smash the pots he is left with a "single shard" displaying the technique and must decide whether to turn back or to continue on to see if the emperor's assistant will consider his master's work.

A Single Shard has a surprising ability to make the reader care about something as obscure as 12th century Korean pottery. The ethical dilemmas and Tree-ear's discussions with Crane-Man about them give depth to this story. Tree-ear is believable and convincing as a homeless child who has found a passion. We empathize with him even though he is certainly a character of his time.



Things to Talk About and Notice

  • The story revolves around the work of the potters of the village and Tree-ear's fascination with it. How are people drawn toward work and art. What factors determine our passions? List some of the things that you and people you know are passionate about.

  • How does the older system of apprenticeship compare with current formal schooling systems?

  • Tree-ear and Crane-man are homeless. What do you think would be different if they were homeless in your area and in our time?

  • Master potter Min is very gruff and seldom shows any approval. Why do you think he is this way? Is there any change over the course of the story?

  • There are several ethical discussions within the story. Stop and discuss these questions and decide what you would do in this situation. How do you decide ethical questions? What are the general concerns that should be raised?


  • Find a local potter who will let you see their work and observe them at a pottery wheel.

  • It can be difficult to get access to a pottery wheel but, like Tree-ear you can experiment with other ways of working with clay. Try forming pottery out of slabs of clay and work on making something like the leaf that he works so hard on.

  • Look at an Atlas to track Tree-ear's trip.

  • Time how quickly you can walk a given distance and then guess how far you might be able to walk in a day. Compare it to other forms of transportation and how far you can travel in a day: bicycle, horse, car, train, and airplane.

  • Visit a local flea market to compare designs on china.

  • Create a timeline of Korean history and look for ways in which this story was affected by the times.

  • Research the life of royalty versus the life of the common people during the twelfth century. How does this compare with current class differences.


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    Grades 1 - 5
    Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. Picture Book. 32 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    This is a sensitive book about a boy and his dad who live at the airport. Homelessness is not a common subject for any children's book and a picture book on this small family is a daring deed for Bunting and Himler to attempt. They had to walk a fine line to tell us this story. A misstep in any direction would have brought condescension, oversimplification, false cheerfulness or hopelessness and Fly Away Home is free of all those things. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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  • Hahn, Mary Downing December Stillness. Novel. Grades 4-8. Order Info.
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  • Curtis, Christopher Paul Bud, Not Buddy. Novel. Grades 4-8. Order Info.
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