Linda Sue Park, , illus. by Julie Downing. . Clarion, $16 (37pp) ISBN 978-0-618-13337-6

Newbery Medalist Park (A Single Shard ) brings an accomplished novelist's sensibility to this suspenseful picture book set in 19th-century Korea, fully developing her characters despite the abbreviated format. Every night, Sang-hee's father climbs the mountain in their seaside village and lights a fire, to signal that no enemies have landed. Firekeepers on adjacent mountains pass on the message, which eventually reaches the king's palace. Sang-hee pines for a little excitement and wishes that even one of the king's soldiers would ride out ("I could show him the beach. Where to catch the best fish.... After that he might teach me a little about sword-fighting"). One evening, when his father is injured, Sang-hee takes over his task. Tempted to draw the soldiers, and then almost unable to carry out his mission because he drops a coal and another burns out, Sang-hee kindles the fire at last, and takes pride in being, as his father says, "part of the king's guard just as the soldiers are." Assured, empathetic storytelling involves readers in Sang-hee's inner conflict. Downing (Mozart, Tonight ) amplifies the tension with dramatically composed watercolor-and-pastel illustrations. While Sang-hee debates lighting the fire, his eyes nearly fill the spread, transfixed on the coal he holds and reflecting its hot orange glow. Elsewhere, sparks fly off the coal, metamorphosing into bright metal points on the armor of the soldiers he imagines. The notion of duty to others versus personal longing adds depth to an already fascinating snippet of history. Ages 5-8. (Mar.)