The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park (illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng; Clarion Books, 2021) is a brief children’s poetic book with a thought experiment: what one thing would you save if a fire was destroying your home? No limits. After the teacher gives this question to her class, each subsequent page provides a student’s answer to the question. Reading this book emphasizes the value of things versus relationships in a completely unique way, giving the reader, whether ten years old or high school, a chance to deeply ponder this question for themselves.
Some of the pages are a student’s internal thoughts, considering the options and the parameters of the discussion. Other pages, with words in quote marks, are words students discuss with each other. The teacher’s words are in a different font. Student responses are not labeled with student names, but sometimes the kids mention a name when they respond to a speaker. The class discusses the limits of the thought experiment (does a whole bookshelf, with all the treasures, count as one thing?). Other parts of the conversation show a distinct difference to approaching this question: while some choose a physical useful item, such as a phone, other’s choose more representative items, such as a special sweater or a china animal collection.
Some of the items selected are heart-breaking but deeply revealing about a student’s history or personality. A lock of hair from her long-deceased brother. Mother’s insulin, because she won’t think of it herself. Another student’s internal thoughts run through the very real events that happened when he or she escaped a fire, for real. He cannot say it aloud. It is obviously painful:
“They don’t know what I know, Ms. Chang neither, even though she said don’t take anything if there’s a fire for real.”
The author’s note indicates that the poetic line structure from “sijo,” an ancient form of traditional Korean poetry.
“A classic sijo has three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. Sometimes the three lines are divided into six shorter ones.”
The One Thing You’d Save is an emotional book for me. (Of course, it could just be hormones, which tend to make me emotional when I get invested in a book, pretty much all the time.) This book is about 60 pages, with most of them showing illustrations of some kind, and a few illustrations take multiple pages. This type of emotional investment seems incredible for a book so brief. Even at a short length, The One Thing You’d Save paints an intriguing portrait of what is important to each of us.
I’m finding it difficult to classify. It’s a book of poetry, first. Is it a middle grade “novel”? Or a young adult “novel”? In some ways it feels universal. We should all ponder this in our life: what is our most important thing?