Awhile ago I read When My Name Was Keoko. It was one of the best books I have ever read. A Single Shard is written by the same author, and it is just as good.
In this Newbery Medal-winning book set in 12th century Korea, Tree-ear, a 13-year-old orphan, lives under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a potters' village famed for delicate celadon ware. He has become fascinated with the potter’s craft; he wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is elated — until he finds obstacles in his path: the backbreaking labor of digging and hauling clay, Min’s irascible temper, and his own ignorance. But Tree-ear is determined to prove himself — even if it means taking a long, solitary journey on foot to present Min’s work in the hope of a royal commission . . . even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard.
Tree-ear is a young guy living under a bridge with Crane-man, his longtime friend who looks out for him. He's a very kind, very smart boy, and the book quickly establishes that he and Crane-man both have a strong sense of morality.
"Tree-ear had been trotting along the road on his early-morning perusal of the village rubbish heaps. Ahead of him a man carried a heavy load on a jiggeh, an open-framed backpack made of branches. On the jiggeh was a large woven-straw container, the kind commonly used to carry rice.
...The man had paused in the road and hoisted the wooden jiggeh higher on his back, shifting the cumbersome weight. As Tree-ear stared, rice began to trickle out of a hole in the straw box. The trickle thickened and became a stream. Oblivious, the man continued on his way.
For a few short moments Tree-ear's thoughts wrestled with one another. Tell him - quickly! Before he loses too much rice!
No! Don't say anything - you will be able to pick up the fallen rice after he rounds the bend...
Tree-ear made his decision. He waited until the man had reached the bend in the road, then ran to catch him. "Honorable sir," Tree-ear said, panting and bowing. "As I walked behind you, I noticed that you are marking your path with rice!"
The farmer turned and saw the trail of rice. A well-built man with a broad suntanned face, he pushed his straw hat back, scratched his head, and laughed ruefully.
"Impatience," said the farmer. "I should have had this container woven with a double wall. But it would have taken more time. Now I pay for not waiting a bit longer." He struggled out of the jiggeh's straps and inspected the container. He prodded the straw to close the gap but to no avail, so he threw his arms up in mock despair. Tree-ear grinned. He liked the farmer's easygoing nature.
"Fetch me a few leaves, boy," said the farmer. Tree-ear complied, and the man stuffed them into the container as a temporary patch.
The farmer squatted to don the jiggeh. As he started walking, he called over his shoulder. "Good deserves good, urchin. The rice on the ground is yours if you can be troubled to gather it."
"Many thanks, kind sir!" Tree-ear bowed, very pleased with himself. He had made a lucky guess, and his waist pouch would soon be filled with rice.
Tree-ear had learned from Crane-man's example. Foraging in the woods and rubbish heaps, gathering fallen grain-heads in the autumn - these were honorable ways to garner a meal, requiring time and work. But stealing and begging, Crane-man said, made a man no better than a dog.
"Work gives a man dignity, stealing takes it away," he often said.
Following Crane-man's advice was not always easy for Tree-ear. Today, for example. Was it stealing, to wait as Tree-ear had for more rice to fall before alerting the man that his rice bag was leaking? Did a good deed balance a bad one? Tree-ear often pondered these kind of questions, alone or in discussion with Crane-man.
So obviously these are two pretty honorable guys. I mean yes, Tree-ear did wait until most of the rice had fallen, but he didn't really steal it. It was the man's choice to let him have it. Obviously this kind of question is morally complicated, but the cool thing is that the characters knew that and they felt guilty about it.
So, Tree-ear has always wanted to be a potter. He's been observing Min, the most famous potter in the village. When he gets too close one day, admiring a newly crafted vase, Min catches him and as a punishment (but to Tree-ear's secret delight), Min forces Tree-ear to work for him. But it's not the kind of work Tree-ear thought he'd be doing. Instead of helping to shape vases or craft pitchers, Tree-ear is doing incredibly strenuous work like hauling wood for miles and getting dehydrated and overheated. But he's a seriously good guy - he wants to learn to become a potter, to gain Min's trust, so badly that he'll put up with anything - including being treated horribly by Min.
Min's wife is precious, though, and insists on giving Tree-ear water and food for his trouble. At the end of the ten-hour days he works, he comes back to the bridge and gives Crane-man half of his food. He's just a really good guy.
I won't tell you the whole plot, but I love this book. The message is to follow your dreams, go above and beyond in all that you do, and always be moral and kind. Min continues to treat Tree-ear like he's worthless, and yet Tree-ear still does back-breaking work for him. And to answer your question - yes, the work does pay off.
This book is a bit sad but it leads to something good, and it has a wonderful ending. Truly a worthy read; I'm even considering reading it to my brothers and, one day, to my own children.