Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The One Thing You'd Save by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng

The One Thing You'd Save by Linda Sue Park,
illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng
Clarion Books/HMH Publishing. 2021, 72 pages

Have you ever wondered what you would save in a fire? No? Well, I have and it turns out, when faced with that reality, I tried to save my computer.* 

Linda Sue Park has posed the same question in her latest work of fiction. It all begins when middle grade teacher Ms. Chang gives her students a homework assignment challenging her students to think about the Most Important Thing they would rescue if their home were burning. But it can only be one thing, size and weight don't matter, and it doesn't have to be family members or pets because they are already safe, much to the relief of one student who would want to save her slowly walking arthritic Nana.

The one most important thing these students pick vary from a cell phone to call 911 and a dad's wallet to have money once they are out of their burning home, to an ugly blue sweater, to a Mets-Cubs program, to a sketchbook full of flaming dragons. One student silently decides they would take nothing, glad to see their total dump-of-a-building burn down. 

But as the students begin to go into why they would save what they think is their one most precious thing the tone of the discussion changes. That ugly blue sweater links three generations of a family together. One grandmother knit a blue sweater for the girl's father, then another grandmother unraveled it and made a sweater for her. A collection of 93 china animal figurines, prizes in boxes of tea, connects two friends to each other more deeply than meets the eye.

Slowly, the discussion about objects becomes one of memories attached to those objects. I loved reading that process, and how the student's stories evolved. Even Ms. Chang, who thought she would save her 18 grade books and class pictures, changes her mind about what's important. In the end, what makes this book so interesting is what the students and teacher learn about themselves and their classmates.

In her Author's Note, Linda Sue Park calls this a collection of poems, but it really reads like a coherent whole. At first, it may seem confusing, but it won't take long to figure out the different voices of the students and the teacher, who actually has her own font. Park has used an ancient traditional Korean poetic form called sijo (SHEE-zho). But while sijo generally has three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables, she didn't stick strictly to that structure, proving how organic nature of poetic forms can evolve over time. 

Artist Robert Sae-Heng's grey-toned illustration are sketched in shades of grey, black and white reminding me of the kind of charcoal that burnt wood becomes and giving the accompanying class discussion an after-the-fire atmosphere. And although the discussion takes place in the classroom, as each student talks about what they would rescue, Sae-Heng has given readers an intimate view into their rooms at home showing their meaningful item, for example, the blue sweater:

The One Thing You'd Save is a thought-provoking, conversation generating work. Even though my young readers are way too young for this book, I asked them the same question Ms. Chang asked her students, and the answers were just as amazing. There's a lot to think about in this slender novel-in-verse that asks a question we have all probably thought about at one time or another.   

So...what do you hold most precious that you would want to save in a fire?  

You can find a useful discussion guide for this book HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

*Did I save my computer? Indirectly, yes. The fire wasn't in my apartment, but fire balls dropped into my bedroom air conditioner and a fireman came charging in and knocked it out of the window, along with my windows, curtains, and a bunch of books I had on the window sill. Luckily, my air conditioner wasn't plugged in or it would have resulted in an electrical fire, which would have been devastating for everyone in the building. I couldn't disconnect the computer I wanted to save from the cable modem, so I put it under the desk and left. If I had left it on the desk, it would have been destroyed by water damage coming from the apartment with the fire. The next day, I went out and bought an external drive for backup. What would I save if this happened again? The scrapbook I made of my Kiddo's life, which I put in an easy to grab place. 

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