Linda Sue Park’s New Book of Poems Is Just a Drill

THE ONE THING YOU’D SAVE
By Linda Sue Park
Illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng

Before I started Linda Sue Park’s “The One Thing You’d Save,” I had been reading Heather Christle’s “The Crying Book.” In one section, Christle describes children’s theories about the composition of the moon that were published in The American Journal of Psychology in 1902 as “a house made entirely of windows, in every one a child’s round face.”

That’s the image I kept with me throughout “The One Thing You’d Save,” which doesn’t fully succeed in its poetic structure but does convey a crowded classroom where kids share answers of remarkable depth to an ordinary assignment question. We see their faces in our mind’s eye, as though they’re glancing out the window, considering with humor and grace what they value most in their young lives.

Park, the Newbery Medal-winning author of “A Single Shard,” begins with the assignment: “Imagine that your home is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing.” Her characters respond in the casual everyday speech of middle school students. “Oh man, I hate this, I’m never gonna be able to decide,” one declares, but they do, in short exchanges with one another and in longer monologues that follow the structure of the sijo, a Korean three-line syllabic poetic form similar to the haiku or the tanka.

Though Park borrows from the form, she doesn’t adhere to it; most of the students’ responses comprise multiple two- to three-line stanzas, giving them a jerky quality. The abrupt enjambment at the ends of these lines combined with the push-pull between the forward momentum of the speech and the rules of the sijo, which include subtle volta-like turns of thought from one line to the next, is more distracting than illuminating.

The children are funny and poetic on their own, a multiplicity of voices in discussion and prattling among themselves. Park embraces the chaos, which adds movement to the dialogue. Speakers return, continue their thoughts, amend their answers.

As for the answers themselves, some students pick objects with sentimental value: an old sweater, a baseball game program. Others opt for practicality: a phone, a parent’s wallet. Another, hilariously, picks a rug for an old, slow, sure-to-catch-fire neighbor to stop, drop and roll on.

One student aims to use new sneakers to outrun the flames, while another vows to “walk out with nothing. / Not a dang thing,” with a sadness that’s all the more affecting for its nonchalance and matter-of-factness: “Come see it your own self, place is a total dump.”

It feels natural, as Park steers the book into more solemn territory, that the conversation turns toward grief: One child gives a frighteningly specific play-by-play of what would actually happen amid the smoke and discord of a fire; another remembers a deceased brother, which reminds another of a pet dog that died.

The responses are accentuated by Robert Sae-Heng’s gray-and-black-shaded sketches, which recall imaginative doodles scribbled in a notebook but ground the students’ reflections by delineating them in cartoon form: There’s the sweater, there’s the rug, there’s the photograph.

Though Park’s medium doesn’t always work, her message is powerful: We don’t need a great blazing tragedy to determine what we hold most precious in our lives; we can define what’s vital through our thoughts and memories, always at hand, in our heads and hearts — safe, where the flames don’t reach.

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