This 2002 Newbery Award book is reviewed by Rowan, age 13
Tree-ear is an orphan who lives in Korea in old times, before electricity, with his friend Crane-man, who is a cripple. Tree-ear dreams of being a potter because he loves watching Min throwing pots on his wheel. Min is the best potter in their village, but he is also very slow.
Once, Tree-ear is admiring a piece made by Min, when Min comes out of his house, yelling at and startling him. Tree-ear drops the pot. As payment for breaking the pot, he asks to help Min with making pottery. Min is not harsh, but tough, very crabby, and hard on Tree-ear. Tree-ear gathers wood and clay as best he can, but Min always demands that he do better.
One day a messenger from the palace comes to their village to commission artists to make pottery for the palace. Suddenly Min and Tree-ear are busier than ever. Min has to make several copies of every piece of work so he can choose one without any flaws in it. This process takes a long time. During this, Tree-Ear asks if he can someday makes pots beside Min. Min replies that he cannot, because the art is passed down from father to son, and Tree-Ear is not his son.
Unfortunately, the new vases Min makes as samples for the palace get ruined. The palace messenger gives the commission to a competing potter in the village. But before he leaves, he tells Min that if someday he has pieces that are good, he should come to the palace and show them to the commissioner.
So Min makes new vases and tells Tree-ear to take them to the palace. Tree-ear begins the journey with the vases in a backpack. One day he sidetracks to a place called the Rock of the Falling Flowers. There, bandits attack him because they think his pack is full of rice. When they see it is full of vases they throw it off the rock, breaking all the vases to pieces.
Tree-ear despairs, but he goes down to see if any piece is still unbroken. There is none. But Tree-ear takes a single shard from one of the vases. At the palace, he presents it to the messenger. Min is given the commission because even with that single shard, he can see how good Min’s work is.
Tree-ear returns home on a boat to find that his friend Crane-man has died. Min’s wife asks Tree-ear to stay with them as their son. Min tells Tree-Ear to gather big logs, or how else could he make his own wheel.
At the end of the book the author mentions a vase called the Thousand Cranes vase. Its maker is unknown.
I think my big learning would be that if you take a journey, one small step at a time, you can get very far. In the book Crane-man tells Tree-ear not to think of the whole journey, but just “one hill, one valley, one day at a time.” I learned more about pottery in general. It made me curious about Korean pottery.
As a character, Tree-ear is very loyal to Min; he perseveres through a lot of things—lots of hard work and a very long journey. In the beginning of the book, he thinks about a specific vase he wants to create, but it’s very advanced; by the end, he knows that he’ll have to take it “one hill, one valley, one day at a time,” and start with simpler things.
I see that this applies to any kind of learning. We can’t expect to make a bulls-eye in our first shot in archery; we can’t expect to read Shakespeare in kindergarten; we can’t expect to play Beethoven on our first piano lesson. You have to progress slowly, one step at a time.