The Newbery Award winning book A Single Shard is about a boy named Tree-ear, who was orphaned at a young age and taken in by a one legged man named Crane-man. Set in twelfth-century Korea, Tree-ear begins working for a potter named Min, who is known for his master skill and attention to detail. When Tree-ear sets out on a journey to make Min’s work well known, the real adventure begins. A Single Shard is a beautifully crafted story about a young boy with strong moral values and an outstanding work ethic.
Tree-ear lives under a bridge in the small seaside village of Ch’ulp’o with his dear care-taker, Crane-man. Crane-man got his name because he only has one leg, and often looks like a crane when he walks. Tree-ear, who was named after a mushroom that grows without parental seed, was orphaned at a young age, when his parents died of illness. Tree-ear is obsessed with the art of pottery, and spends his days watching and admiring as the potters in the village work.
One day, Tree-ear sneaks into the house of Min, one of the finest potters in the region, when he is not home. As he is admiring Min’s work, the potter comes home and is furious and accuses Tree-ear of stealing, causing Tree-ear to drop a piece of Min’s work. Tree-ear pleads with Min, insisting that he is only there to see his creations, and offers to work for him to pay off what he has broken. Min reluctantly agrees, and Tree-ear is hopeful that he will be able to learn from the master potter. Tree-ear’s hopes of learning are dashed as Min gives him other work to do, such as chopping and hauling wood and carting heavy clay. Tree-ear wishes he could be working with Min, but is grateful for the dinner that is provided to him, half of which he would save and bring to Crane-man. When Min’s wife realizes he was saving his food for someone else, she began filling it again so both could have a full meal. Tree-ear is touched by her kindness.
After his debt is paid off, Tree-ear continues to work for Min, and begins forming a bond with Min’s wife, whose name is Ajima. Tree-ear also discovers the work of another master potter, Kang. He is a man of great skill, and uses a technique that Tree-ear has never seen before. Tree-ear considers telling Min of this discovery, but decides against it, despite his fierce loyalty to Min. One day, the word spreads that a royal emissary will be coming to the village, in search of pottery for the palace. The village’s potters get to work creating vessels fit for royalty, and the day comes when Emissary Kim arrives. Kim is impressed with Min and Kang’s work, and arranges another trip to see more from the potters in one month.
Min gets to work, trying out the technique with his own pieces. He is outraged when the vessels are ruined in the kiln, and smashes all of his hard work on the ground. He is unable to make more before Emissary Kim returns, and Kang is chosen to make pottery for the palace. However, Kim is quite impressed with Min’s work and tells Min that he would’ve preferred his work to Kang’s. Kim tells Min that if he were to create a vessel with the inlay work and bring a sample of it to Songdo, he would commission Min to the palace. Tree-ear overhears this conversation and offers to make the trip on behalf of Min. When the vessels are ready, Tree-ear sets off on foot to Songdo. The trip starts off without any difficulties, until one day, in the city of Puyo, Tree-ear is robbed on a mountain cliff by two men. The men take his coins and throw Min’s pottery over the cliff. Tree-ear listens in horror as he hears them smash to the ground. Refusing to give up when he has gone this far, Tree-ear ventures down the mountain and finds the shards of broken vases on the earth below. One piece is big enough to show Min’s work, so Tree-ear takes it and continues on his way. When he arrives at the palace and is finally able to speak to Emissary Kim, Tree-ear explains what happened on his journey and Min is offered the commission to the palace. Tree-ear is put on a ship and travels safely home, filled with pride and excitement.
When Tree-ear arrives home, he is thrilled to tell Min the good news, but Min has some bad news for him; Crane-man has died from an accidental fall from the bridge into the cold water. Tree-ear is devastated at the loss of his dear friend, and also worried about who will care for him. Min and Ajima offer to take Tree-ear in as their own, and ask if they may call him Hyung-pil. Min promises to teach Tree-ear, now known as Hyung-Pil, the art of pottery, and Tree-ear is excited to take on his future, one day at a time.