In The One Thing You’d Save, a teacher named Ms. Chang invites her students to participate in a thought exercise. If their house caught fire, what one thing would they choose to save? Each child, along with Ms. Chang, considers, chooses and then explains their selection. The responses vary widely, ranging from the practical (a wallet, an expensive laptop) to the sentimental (a beloved hand-knit sweater, the program from a New York Mets game) to the lifesaving (an insulin kit).
Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard) presents the story through narrative poems made up of first-person internal monologue and spoken dialogue. The students’ interactions range from playful to serious, lighthearted to profound, as they consider which objects are most important to them. Rich with youthful attitude, Park’s verses provide a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the preoccupations, loves, losses and aspirations of a diverse group of children and their teacher.
Debut illustrator Robert Sae-Heng’s grayscale images envision the objects the students describe, as well as scenes of their homes, the classroom, the night sky, the city and more, though the scenes never include the speakers themselves. Occasional full-spread illustrations offer wordless moments that encourage the reader to rest and contemplate before moving on.
As the characters discuss, share and interpret their ideas, The One Thing You’d Save forms a delightful portrait of a group of learners in community with one another. In a brief note, Park explains that her verses are variations on a Korean poetry form called sijo, which consists of three lines of 13 to 17 syllables. She writes, “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.” It’s impossible not to feel a sense of renewal from this thoughtful book.