In 12th-century Korea, a young orphan boy named Tree-ear lived under a bridge in the small coastal village of Ch'ulp'o. When he wasn't hunting for food for himself and his friend, Crane-man, Tree-ear would often hide behind a paulownia tree to watch a master potter named Min create the finest pottery in all of Korea.
One day after Min left his workshop, Tree-ear dared to get a closer look. While examining an exquisite box, the honorable master potter suddenly returned. Tree-ear was so startled he accidentally dropped the pottery! To pay for his clumsiness, Tree-ear agreed to work for nine days (even though it only took Min three days to make the box). Min turned out to be a grumpy, demanding taskmaster. He made Tree-ear do all the backbreaking work and never gave him a word of praise. Still, Tree-ear worked hard, hoping for the chance to learn how to make pottery, but when he finally got up the courage to ask, Min refused to teach him ("You are not my son!").
Months later an emissary from the royal court sailed into town looking for a potter to create pieces for the palace. What a life-changing opportunity! Every potter in the village - including Min - competed for the coveted commission. The emissary was most impressed with Min's work, but requested that Min show him something more - at the palace in Songdo! Tree-ear, knowing the long journey would be impossible for an old man like Min to complete, volunteered to carry Min's precious celadon pottery over the treacherous mountains to the palace. "Of all the problems you may meet on your journey, it will be people who are the greatest danger, " warned Crane-man (p. 107). Unfortunately Crane-man's warning would prove to be all too true!
If Min was a master potter, then author Linda Sue Park is a master storyteller, expertly weaving history of Korean pottery within her tale of courage. A Single Shard
(160 pages) may be required reading for many schools, but I think students (and parents!) will enjoy reading it.
For another Newbery Medal book, try From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
by E. L. Konigsburg or Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman, a historical fiction book about the Middle Ages (see links below).