Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wednesday, February 19, 2020: Kids' Maximum Shelf: A Wish in the Dark

Candlewick Press: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

by Christina Soontornvat

A boy born a prisoner and reborn to the world through compassion, a lion-hearted girl obsessed with reclaiming her family's honor, and an oppressed lower class ready to take a stand converge in a magical city of light in a Thai-inspired fantasy. In this tween-friendly variation on Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Misérables, Thai-American author Christina Soontornvat (Diary of an Ice Princess series) opens a gateway to a glorious world swirling with wishes and secrets under thousands of magical colored lights.

Once upon a time, the city of Chattana boasted such magical wonders as tree-tall giants, singing fish and floating markets selling "cakes frosted with good luck." The city grew, but "magic doesn't like a crowd" and "the wonders thinned away." Then catastrophe struck. In Chattana's present, magic underlies everyday life in much the same ubiquitous, nearly invisible manner as electricity, but access is tightly controlled. The glowing orbs Chattana's citizens use to light their homes, cook their food and power their machines come in a spectrum of color and strength, with the cheaper Violet and Blue suitable only for producing dim light, and the most expensive, Jade and Gold, capable of running heavy machinery and producing the purest, brightest light. The color of light has become a symbol of not only wealth and status, but of worth and righteousness. 

The law requires nine-year-old orphan Pong, born to a prisoner at Namwon Women's Reform Center upriver from Chattana, to remain incarcerated until he turns 13. He secretly dreams of working for the Governor, Chattana's savior and ruler, whose magic is the sole power source of every orb in the city. When the Governor comes to inspect the prison, though, a misunderstanding on the part of the warden's daughter, Nok, dashes Pong's dreams. "Light shines only on the worthy," the Governor scolds, adding that no worth lies in anyone "born in darkness." Crushed by the epiphany that a thief's son has no future in the City of Rules, Pong instinctively seizes a breathtaking escape opportunity. In the outside world, Pong is a fugitive and the Namwon tattoo on his wrist will proclaim his escapee status to any who see it. If caught, he will return to prison for life. Alone and starving, Pong stumbles upon a rural temple and meets Father Cham, a wry, wise soul with mysterious powers whose boundless compassion changes the course of Pong's life. 

Four years later, 13-year-old Nok Sivapan has a dilemma. She has long guessed that she is her father's biological child but not her mother's. Now society has begun to whisper about her birth, and her mother wants her sent away to quell the scandal. Nok has always worked to make her parents proud, winning Chattana's citywide spire-fighting championship and staying at the head of her class in school. Now she plans to change the gossips' tune with an impressive feat--but first she has to come up with one. Visiting a remote village with her parents, Nok recognizes a young monk as the boy whose escape caused her father to lose his position as warden at Namwon. If she can bring this fugitive to justice, surely no one will question her worth as a daughter. Her relentless pursuit will drive Pong into Chattana's aching, impoverished heart, where rumblings of discontent and protest are stirring, even as it drives Nok herself into the dark truth of her own origin.

While building a children's story on the scaffolding of Les Misérables may sound perilously ambitious, Soontornvat demonstrates an innate sense of how to distill a masterwork down to its timeless essentials and remix them with kid-friendly elements. By loosely preserving Hugo's central trinity of the runaway prisoner who turns to good works, the self-righteous agent of justice who believes people cannot change, and the holy man who understands that only compassion saves souls, she builds depth and maturity into this thrilling adventure. In this fascinating, alternate Thailand, where an attentive person might hear the ripeness of a mango and a skilled martial artist can funnel her own energy through her staff, sparks of magic and mystery illuminate a complex and flawed social structure. Pong and Nok both grow in their understanding of morality as a separate construct from law or societal norm, a concept middle-graders are likely beginning to explore in their own lives. Often traveling among the disenfranchised, the narrative encourages empathy and critical thinking by confronting timeless stereotypes about poverty children have potentially already heard. Soontornvat here offers a bridge to classic literature that asks its readers to imagine a better world. Limned by magic and imbued with social commentary, A Wish in the Dark casts a beguiling spell. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Candlewick Press, $17.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 10-14, 9781536204940, March 2020

Candlewick Press: All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Christina Soontornvat: Composing Light, Compassion and Magic

(photo: Sam Bond)

Christina Soontornvat grew up in a small Texas town, where she spent many childhood days behind the counter of her parents' Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. She now lives in Austin, Tex., with her husband and two children. Soontornvat recently took a few moments during a school visit tour to chat with us about Victor Hugo, compassion and A Wish in the Dark.

How did you decide to turn Les Miserables into a kid's story?

I was introduced to Les Mis when I was about 10 years old, on a trip to visit family in Thailand. My mom was reading the book. I think she chose it because, at that time, there was very little English media over there, so she just grabbed the biggest book she could find. She read it during the day, and at bedtime she would recap the story for me. Even though it is a mature story and I couldn't read the novel until I was an adult, the characters and the situations they got into hooked me. I knew it had the power to be a story that connected with kids. There are big questions and moral predicaments in the novel that middle-grade readers are eager to tackle. When you are 10 to 13 years old, you are ready to start breaking out of this tidy version of the world you've been learning about.

How did you develop the fantasy elements?

Almost everything I write is fantasy. Even if I start a realistic story, a dragon will pop up. I struggled at first with Father Cham's magical powers. I worried, "Am I crossing a line by imbuing a religious figure with magical powers?" However, Thai Buddhism has some elements that we in the West might think of as magic, though it's not the way they think of it. I grew up with Buddhist family members who talked about making wishes, having good fortune, and ghosts and spirits that looked after us. It's similar to the magical realism of Latin-American literary tradition, in that magic is not something that is different or strange, it's a part of everyday life.

Some of my earliest memories of Thailand are of being a toddler and being out on the water at night and seeing so many lights. They seemed like magic, so that's what I wanted to give a magical element to. There are also ceremonies, festivals and celebrations involving light all over Asia. In Thailand, there are many occasions where you light a candle, you make a wish or say a prayer and you send the light up into the sky or out on the river.

What does being an #ownvoices author mean to you?

I'm aware that I'm standing on the shoulders of people who came before me, advocates like the authors who founded We Need Diverse Books, who have done so much to crack open the field and make space for diverse voices. Mine is not the only Asian middle grade fantasy written by an Asian author coming in 2020 and 2021. It's wonderful, and it's high time. If I'd had a book like this when I was younger, it would have meant the world to me. You don't know how much you wanted something until it's put in front of you, and then you think, "Oh, that's what I've been missing!" When your culture is represented in a book, it's a signal that you matter, especially in fantasy, because it has been dominated for so long by Western mythology and fairy tales.

Fantasy has also been male-dominated, but your version of Javert is a strong female character.

She's a more innocent and childlike version of Javert in that she's lived a life of great privilege. Over the course of the book, she confronts that privilege. Thai culture is at times patriarchal, so having a female who's physically strong and strong-willed was important to me. Her path does not mirror Javert's path because she changes her worldview. She has moments when her world gets flipped upside-down, and she realizes everything she has learned is wrong. She changes instead of despairing--that's the source of her heroism.

The Governor displays some of Javert's negative traits.

I always felt some sympathy for Javert. I hope it's clear the Governor comes from a place of good intentions. Even if you look at what's going wrong in our own world and people who are doing cruel things, they often start off trying to do the right thing. But even the best intentions are meaningless if they lead to acts of cruelty.

As opposed to choosing compassion.

The light in my story is a metaphor for compassion. The Governor thinks you need to earn it and not everyone deserves it. In opposition, Father Cham says, "What if we just give it to everyone?" It shouldn't be a radical idea, but it is. It would have taken me a lot longer to understand if it had not been for the books I read. Reading Les Miserables changed me. Literature does many things, but the most important is to foster empathy. Eighteenth-century France or a fantasy story set in Thailand, both empower you to have empathy.

What can we expect from you in the future?

My nonfiction book about the Thai cave rescue comes out in September. I was in Thailand when the events took place, and I went back to do research, conduct interviews and meet the soccer team. I had done research about Thailand and Buddhism for A Wish in the Dark, not realizing it would also be useful for the Thai cave rescue story. Buddhism and spirituality were so important to the kids and their coach when they were waiting to be found. They waited for 10 days, and they got through it with meditation and prayer.

I also have another middle grade fantasy coming, an adventure on the high seas about a girl who's an assistant to a mapmaker. She thinks she's running away from her old life, but she's running all the way around the globe only to have to confront her past--and there are dragons in the waters. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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