I recently loaned Holes to a friend, and he decided his nephew would probably like it. So he went out and bought six books for his nephew: Holes, Hatchet, The Giver, Number the Stars, Bud, Not Buddy, and A Single Shard. He's reading them all before sending them to his nephew, and he offered me some reads. So I picked this one.
A Single Shard is the 12th century tale of an orphan boy in Korea who dreams of becoming a potter. The boy, Tree-ear, procures an apprenticeship to the most skillful potter in the village (which is full of potters, so this really is a distinction). However, the master potter has no intention of teaching Tree-ear to make the vases he so admires. Instead, he is sent on chores: chopping wood for the kiln, gathering and draining clay for the master. Finally, Tree-ear is sent on a journey to show the master's work to and audience at the king's palace. This climactic journey is long and taxing, and becomes Tree-ear's opportunity to prove himself.
It's a good story. It's told like it's a legend, and in the style we think of as eastern (without contractions, with a humble tone and straightforward words). It's short, but every scene conveys an important point or message. The ending isn't saccharin sweet, but a balanced solution.
At first I thought the boy's character was a bit implausible. I compared Tree-ear to the upper-middle-class boys I know, the ones who spend their afternoons playing video games while their mothers cook their dinner, and then they won't eat their vegetables. Tree-ear, on the other hand, spent considerable time rummaging through garbage piles, and was ecstatic to find a cabbage core to share with his homeless and crippled companion, Crane-man. Instead of dreaming of shelter or a warm meal, as we might suppose, Tree-ear dreams of making vases from clay. I can't imagine any American boys yearning so strongly to do such a thing. And yet, it works, because the story is told as a legend. It takes place in a faraway place, long ago, and people thought differently then.
Although the narrator discusses Tree-ear's motivations and reasoning, there was little discussion of the conflict between Tree-ear's dreams (becoming a master potter) and the role played by his friend, Crane-man. Up until this point, Crane-man had taught Tree-ear just about everything he knew: morals, where to find food, etc. But now Tree-ear wants more than Crane-man can teach, and he finds a way to get it, but he leaves behind his friend and tutor.