Linda Sue Park. A Single Shard. New York: Houghton, 2001. Print.
—————. A Long Walk to Water. New York: Houghton, 2010. Print.
Both of these books by Linda Sue Park tell the story of orphans who overcame great odds, one in twelfth-century Korea and one in contemporary Africa. The author presents both stories in a bare, realistic manner, yet they are meant to inspire.
A Single Shard is the story of Tree-Ear, who lives under a bridge with a lame homeless beggar named Crane-Man. The village where they live is known for its clay which is used to make very distinctive celadon pottery.
Tree-Ear manages to get a job, for no pay but with a good meal, as a go-fer for Min, the potter whom Tree-Ear considers the best in the town. He mostly cuts wood for the kiln and digs clay for the pottery. He learns about taking the raw clay and refining it.
The details about ceramics and the life of beggars are carefully and lovingly set out. Tree-Ear sees how only about a fifth of the items taken to the kiln are good enough for Min. But he will learn also—as the title suggests—even a shard of high quality has value.
While most of A Single Shard is set in Tree-Ear’s seaside village, the boy at one point has to make a long overland journey to the capital city. (This is a few centuries before Seoul is even founded.) The story focuses on art but includes adventure.
The ending reminded me of other stories where the protagonists had to overcome great odds but left behind something of great value or beauty. While the tale is quite different, I could not help thinking of The Cloister and the Hearth. Similarly, I was reminded of Amos Fortune: Free Man, a book of the same reading level featuring a protagonist who overcame long odds.
A Long Walk to Water focuses on Salva, one of the Lost Boys, victims of civil war in southern Sudan in the 1980s. His story is primarily one of survival—guerillas, crocodiles, lions, desert. It is intense and not for the weak of stomach.
The story begins when he is eleven. While school is in session, his village is attacked by some soldiers. His teacher tells all the students to escape to the bush: the village means certain death.
So he goes east for months, crossing savanna, the Nile River, and desert, eventually making it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where he stays for six years. When that camp is closed down, he becomes a leader of a group of over 1,000 boys from the camp who make a trek to a camp in Kenya. While slightly fictionalized, A Long Walk to Water is based on the true story of Salva Dut.
Interspersed with Salva’s adventures are brief descriptions of a girl named Nya in a Sudanese village in 2008. She spends half of most of her days getting water for her family. Curiously, some of her experiences of extracting water from clay soil are similar to Tree-Ear’s as he extracts impurities and water from the clay he works with.
Both of Mrs. Park’s stories have very moving conclusions. These are sophisticated young adult books—relatively short with main characters in their pre-teens or early teens. A Single Shard won a Newbery Award, which places the audience at late elementary or middle school. But do not be fooled, older readers will be moved as well.