The One Thing You’d Save
by Linda Sue Park; illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng
“Imagine that your home is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing./ Your family and pets are safe, so don’t worry about them./ Your Most Important Thing. Any size. A grand piano? Fine.” So begins this assignment by teacher Ms. Chang, who sets her students thinking about what matters to them most and what they’d hate most to lose.
Newbery Medal–winner Linda Sue Park puts a new spin on the class assignment genre by making this an in-class discussion (though one requiring out-of-class thought) rather than a written task, and by making it a collection of unrhymed verse written in Korean sijo format, usually in three-lined stanzas. Chat freely flows as kids start with the obvious (“MY PHONE!”) and predictably get stumped (“Oh man, I hate this, I’m never gonna be able to decide”). Soon the discussion expands to things that have emotional importance—the sweater knitted by a long-gone grandmother, the signed program from a ball game, even the saved locks of a brother who died soon after birth, and finally even Ms. Chang gets in on the action, deciding that she wouldn’t need her collection of grade books to remember her unforgettable class.
Park refers to the narrative as a collection of poems, but, though font changes differentiate teacher from students, the verses flow together as an airily formatted, conversational and cohesive story. While there’s no systematic identification of the narrators, close reading and the occasional dropped name reveal some dynamics in friendship—a key moment at a Mets game figuring differently in two kids’ answers—and in the classroom itself, as kids build on one another’s answers, one student worries about a response that seems frivolous after another’s particularly moving statement, and a young collector, who keeps expanding his answer to some pushback, eventually gets some respect for his possessions. The responses not spoken out loud are as important as those that are, such as the kid who wouldn’t save anything because the “place is a total dump. . . . Be glad to see it burn down,” or the student who’s survived a real fire (“If there really is a fire/ the only thing you worry about saving is your own sorry skin”). Throughout, there’s deft management of the emotional tempo, with respect for the personal meaning of sneakers as well as the necessity of Mom’s insulin, and the insightful choices bring the narrative quickly from interesting thought experiment to keen awareness of how things can represent love and connection and identity.
This is a combination of piquant premise and accessible, engaging text, resulting in an unexpected hi-lo title that will invite both reluctant and enthusiastic literati to reconsider their possessions. It also cries out to be a classroom read or even readaloud or readers theater, prompting youngsters to embark on their own discussion. Sae-Heng’s interspersed black and white digital scenes and spot art have a sketchy, hand-drawn look, recalling Brian Karas or Maira Kalman in their robust, naïve draftsmanship but adding a moody shadowed take all their own. Park closes with an explanation of the sijo form and her variations, noting that “using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.”
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Image from The One Thing You’d Save © 2021 by Robert Sae-Heng, reproduced by permission of Clarion.