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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003

On the book trail

A Single Shard, by LINDA SUE PARK, Clarion Books; 2002; 160 pp.

If recent children's books are any indication, we might be led to believe that boy-wizards who fight evil and that children lucky enough to embark on wild adventures exist only in Britain or the United States. In fact, why does almost every story worth telling seem to take place only on one or the other side of the Atlantic?

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There's a one-word explanation: access. What we end up reading most often are books released by the giant publishing houses based in these two countries. The stories we read, in other words, are the stories they choose to publish -- and publicize. Admittedly, many of them are wonderful, very readable stories, but what we miss out on are books written in another language, or set someplace different, or dealing with something other than magic or adventure -- books that are equally wonderful but which just don't have access to mainstream publishing. And we're left feeling -- wrongly -- that Asian children don't lead lives as exciting as their Western counterparts.

That's what makes Linda Sue Park's "A Single Shard" so refreshing. It's set in 12th-century Korea, in the coastal village of Ch'ulp'o. At that time, Ch'ulp'o was renowned for its ceramics, first because of its easy access to the Yellow Sea and to thriving trade routes with China, and second, because the clay from the village had just the right amount of iron content to produce the exquisite gray-green color known as celadon, so prized by collectors.

For this story's starving orphan-hero, Tree-Ear, magic takes a most unusual form: It's a clay pot rising from a potter's wheel. And not just any potter's wheel, though. It's that of master potter Min. Tree-Ear spends his days foraging for food in the refuse heaps of the village, but his best moments are spent watching Min throw the formless clay on his wheel, listening to the wheel sing as it does its work, and watching, spellbound, as an elegant vase or an earthenware duck materializes as if out of thin air. So when a livid Min catches Tree-Ear spying on his work -- and worse, breaking a piece by accident -- Tree-Ear eagerly volunteers to make amends by working for the potter for free for nine days.

Tree-Ear secretly hopes that this is his chance to turn the wheel, but he's in for a nasty surprise. Min seems to have no need for an apprentice, and when Tree-Ear turns up for work the first day, he's sent off to the forest to chop firewood for the kiln. Nine days stretches into a year, spent working for Min -- chopping firewood, cutting clay from the village's clay banks, and draining the clay till it reaches the right consistency -- but never once turning the wheel. Min remains gruff and distant. His wife, however, packs food daily for the homeless boy as payment for helping the old potter, who could use the help but is too proud to ask for it.

And then the rumor of a royal commission wafts through the town, filling the hearts of every potter in Ch'ulp'o with hope. Soon after, a royal envoy arrives and Min plunges headlong into the task of making his lifelong dream come true -- bagging a commission from the court. But he's not alone in his endeavors, and Tree-Ear stumbles across another potter named Kang who is developing a new ceramic technique. Tree-Ear is in a quandary: Can he reveal another potter's secret to his master, or is that theft?

Park's story is a remarkable introduction to the art of pottery. It suggests that the creation of true art -- be it an earthen pot or a painting, an animated film or a musical composition -- simply requires a lot of hard work. Before Tree-Ear can craft his own pot, he must master the more humble -- and far less appealing -- tasks. Producing something beautiful takes not just inspiration and creativity, but also energy, toil and patience.

This tale of a boy's intense loyalty to his master and his even greater love for pottery is also a revealing look at how pottery developed in Korea -- and how it often took great effort and large risks to introduce the tiniest innovations to the art form. (Incidentally, every piece described in this tale exists in a museum or a private collection somewhere in the world.)

Tree-Ear sticks it out with Min, even when he gets no encouragement. And he teaches Min a thing or two about how the greatest of hope can lie in a small orphan boy with unflagging resolve -- and in the smallest shard of pottery made with love by its creator.

For children 10 years and up. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, (03) 3354-0131. Many thanks to Robert Yellin, The Japan Times ceramics columnist, for recommending this book. If you'd like to know more about ceramics, contact Robert via his Web site, www.e-yakimono.net

Bored Claude, by JILL NEWTON (illustrator), Bloomsbury; 2002; 32 pp.

Claude the shark has a problem -- he's bored.

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The other fish in his colorful underwater world are busy gardening. The pink sea-horses could use a hand with the hoeing; the fiery orange crabs with pruning. But neither planting with the purple octopuses nor watering with the brightly striped angelfish can distract Claude from his boredom.

The truth is, though, Claude's aquatic home is so vibrant, it's a wonder he's bored at all. Children will love the energetic artwork of this picture book, especially the flamboyant colors of the stunning sea-garden that all the other marine creatures are busy building.

When the garden is complete, a big party is thrown to celebrate -- but Claude isn't invited because he hasn't helped at all. Then Claude hits upon a great idea that has nothing to do with gardening. It's individual, it's different, it wins him the acceptance of his peers -- and cures his boredom.

You don't have to do what everyone else is doing to make friends, Claude finds. You can be yourself and find your own unique way to pitch in. This adorable tale about a shark with ennui is a good one to pick up at bedtime.

For children up to 5 years. Available at online book stores.

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