Literary Criticism and Significance
A Single Shard won the 2002 Newbery Medal, a prestigious award that the American Library Association grants yearly to an author who makes the most important contribution to children’s literature. This award is an important event in the life of any book, but for A Single Shard, it was perhaps especially helpful. It brought widespread attention to a sweet story that might otherwise have missed the notice of many teachers and librarians because of its relatively obscure subject matter.
A Korean American, author Linda Sue Park began researching Korea in the 1990s because she wanted to be able to tell her children about this part of their heritage. Her research sparked several ideas that later became novels. When Park received the Newbery for A Single Shard, she received a great deal of positive attention from Koreans and Korean Americans who were pleased to see their culture and heritage recognized in the United States. At the time of the award, she made the front page of Korean newspapers and gave many interviews to Korean reporters. She even received a letter of congratulations from the First Lady of South Korea—an honor which left her “flabbergasted.”
In a note at the end of her book, Park gives readers more information about Korean celadon pottery, about a historical Korean superstition against foxes, and about Korean society at the time period of the book. She notes that homeless people like Tree-ear and Crane-man would have been extremely unusual in Korea at the time of the story. Family is and was extremely important in Korean culture, and custom required families to take care of distant relatives. Those who did not have families typically sought refuge in Buddhist temples. In an interview with School Library Journal, Park says that she made the main characters of her book homeless because she wanted to explore the theme of family. She also mentions that Korean children often tease their siblings by saying that they are orphans from under a bridge, and that she felt compelled to give this cliché “a twist.”
A Single Shard received almost universally positive reviews. Publishers Weekly calls the book “a finely etched novel,” and The New York Times says it is “deftly shaped” and “surprisingly moving.” Reviewers approve of Park’s solid writing and her skillful development of a historical setting that is unfamiliar to many of her readers. Park also receives praise for developing characters subtly through their actions.
In their discussions of the novel, reviewers make relatively few negative comments. Linnea Lannon of the New York Times mentions that the text “impart[s] more than most readers of any age want to know about making pottery” and that, without the Newbery Medal to recommend it, it might be a hard sell. In spite of these minor complaints, however, she joins her peers in delivering a largely positive review, ending on a description of A Single Shard as a sweet coming-of-age story about a heroic and lovable character.