One of our recommended books is A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat


All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

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All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

A boy on the run. A girl determined to find him. A compelling fantasy looks at issues of privilege, protest, and justice.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2020
  • 384 Pages
  • 9781536204940

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About Christina Soontornvat

Christina Soontornvat is the author of A Wish in the DarkChristina 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. Christina has a BS in Mechanical Engineering, a Master’s Degree in Science Education, and spent a decade working in the science museum field. She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.


“Nuanced questions of morality, oppression, and being defined by one’s circumstances are compounded with exciting action in this novel inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The characters are resonant, and the action is enhanced by the fantastical Thailand-like setting. The original storyline and well-developed characters make this a standout novel. Highly recommended.” School Library Journal

“Set in a fantasy analogue of Thailand, all characters are presumed Thai, and Thai life and culture permeate the story in everything from the mangoes Pong eats in prison to the monks he meets beyond the prison’s walls. It’s also a retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Soontornvat has maintained the themes of the original while making the plot and the characters utterly her own. Pong’s and Nok’s narratives are drawn together by common threads of family, loyalty, and a quest to define right and wrong, twining to create a single, satisfying tale. A complex, hopeful, fresh retelling.” Kirkus Reviews

“Soontornvat artfully builds up to a triumphant confrontation, weaving in important themes about oppression and civil disobedience along the way.” Publishers Weekly

“It’s a novel—a stand- alone, no less—that seems to have it all: a sympathetic hero, a colorful setting, humor, heart, philosophy, and an epic conflict that relates the complexity and humanity of social justice without heavy-handed storytelling. Soontornvat deftly blends it all together, salting the tale with a dash of magic that enhances the underlying emotions in this masterfully paced adventure. An important book that not only shines a light but also shows young readers how to shine their own. Luminous.” Booklist (starred review)

“A thrilling fantasy, set in a fresh, original world, with a vital message at its heart. A Wish in the Dark is incandescent.” —Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor–winning author of The Inquisitor’s Tale

“At once timeless and timely, Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark is a richly imagined portrait of the power of hope, courage, and compassion to shine a light in dark times and the ability of small people to effect great change. Ingenious, captivating, and utterly gorgeous.” —Anne Ursu, National Book Award–nominated author of The Real Boy

“Christina Soontornvat’s Les Misérables-inspired A Wish in the Dark will have readers cheering for Pong, the young boy who escapes a life of unfair imprisonment, discovers the powers of friendship and forgiveness, and raises his voice against oppression. I was swept away by the Thai setting, the Buddhist teachings of Father Cham, and the sheer grit and determination of these young characters. At the heart of this novel, like Victor Hugo’s, are the struggle for justice and the power of marginalized communities to change our world for the better. Young readers will be rooting for Pong and his band of revolutionary friends and inspired to spread more light in their own communities.”—Sayantani DasGupta, New York Times best-selling author of the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books

Discussion Questions

1. “A monster of a mango tree” is introduced on the first page of the book. How is it significant? What part does it play in the story?

2. Pong and Somkit are best friends but are very different. How do they differ as young boys in prison? As young men at the end of the book?

3. On pages 7 and 8, Pong and Somkit debate the merits of standing up for what is right versus protecting oneself. Pong thinks it was worthwhile to fight for the mango that should have been theirs, whereas Somkit says, “Sometimes you have to go along with things if you don’t want to get mashed into a pulp.” Which point of view do you agree with? Why?

4. “Trees drop their fruit straight down” is a proverb that appears first on page 14. What does this mean? Do you think it’s true?

5. The Governor of Chattana says, “Light shines only on the worthy” (page 23). What does he mean by that, both literally and metaphorically?

6. All prisoners in Chattana were tattooed on their wrist with the name of their prison. How did his tattoo affect Pong’s life?

7. After Pong escapes from the prison, he meets Father Cham at the Buddhist monastery. Father Cham becomes many things to Pong: parent, teacher, spiritual leader. Describe Father Cham’s teaching style. What does Pong learn from him?

8. Soon after Pong meets Father Cham, the monk ties one length of string after another around Pong’s wrists, each time reciting a blessing. The blessings are oddly specific, such as “May you never step in a snake’s nest,” or “May you never get food poisoning from raw chicken” (page 57). What did you think when you read these blessings?

9. Father Cham repeats often to Pong, “You have a good heart.” But Pong is not sure he does. What makes him unable to believe this?

10. We meet Nok Sivapan, the prison warden’s daughter, several times throughout the book. What is she like at the beginning? How does she change?

11. On pages 83–85, we learn that Nok’s family has a secret that concerns something shameful in Nok’s past. What did you think it might be?

12. On page 93, Pong questions why Father Cham wishes for the baby to walk in peace. He wonders why Father Cham didn’t bless her with wealth or a long life instead. Which of those three blessings (wealth, long life, or walking in peace) would you most want, and why?

13. Father Cham gives Pong a final blessing: “My wish for you is that you find what you are looking for” (page 111). What does Pong think he means by this? What do you think Father Cham meant?

14. Light is one of the main subjects of this book: the magic orbs, the different colored lights that are priced according to their brightness, the light that flows from certain people’s fingers, and even inner light. Nok learns to use the light that is deep inside her to win at spire fighting. What do you think this inner light is?

15. Both Father Cham and Ampai, the woman who organizes the resistance to the Governor, are elders who guide the younger people who live with them. How are they alike? How are they different?

16. Ampai says, “It’s the law, but it isn’t what’s right” (page 212). How do these two things, the law and what is right, differ? Can you think of laws that don’t seem right to you?

17. The Governor says, “It was my destiny to bring Chattana back to the light. Every day since that first day has been a struggle to keep order, to keep the darkness at bay. Not just the darkness of the night, but the darkness in people’s own hearts. But it has all been worth it. Forty years later, there have been no fires, no wars, no disasters” (page 258). How has he accomplished this? What kind of man is the Governor?

18. When Father Cham appears to Pong in a vision, he helps Pong clarify what it is he seeks. Pong first thinks it is freedom, but then sees that is only half the answer. He finally realizes, “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light” (page 324). What does this mean? Do you agree?

19. Nok remembers a conversation with her father when they discussed the differences between the lives of people on the East Side and the West Side. He told her, “Sometimes light shines on the worthy. But sometimes it just shines on the lucky ones” (page 242). What do you think Nok’s father meant by that? How does luck or privilege affect the lives of the people who live on the West Side?

20. On the day of the march, there are a lot of ominous happenings, including the arrival of many police armed with long wooden staffs. “Behind them, Nok saw the shutters of the West Side windows swinging closed, one after another, shutting off all that pretty Gold light. Whatever happened on the bridge tonight, the people on the West Side didn’t want to see it” (page 342). Why did they not want to see what happened?

21. After the Governor is gone, the people feel a little lost since there is no longer anyone telling them what to do. The author asks, “Which was better: being safe or having freedom? And did you have to choose?” (page 372). How would you answer this?


Chapter 1

A monster of a mango tree grew in the courtyard of Namwon Prison.

Its fluffy green branches stretched across the cracked cement and hung over the soupy brown water of the Chattana River. The women inmates spent most of their days sheltered under the shade of this tree while the boats glided up and down and up again on the other side of the prison gate.

The dozen children who lived in Namwon also spent most of their days lying in the shade. But not in mango season. In mango season, the tree dangled golden drops of heaven overhead, swaying just out of reach.

It drove the kids nuts. ­

They shouted at the mangoes. ­ They chucked pieces of broken cement at them, trying to knock them down. And when the mangoes refused to fall, the children cried, stomped their bare feet, and collapsed in frustration on the ground.

Pong never joined them. Instead, he sat against the tree’s trunk, hands crossed behind his head. He looked like he was sleeping, but actually, he was paying attention.

Pong had been paying attention to the tree for weeks. He knew which mangoes had started ripening first. He noticed when the fruit lightened from lizard- skin green to pumpkin- rind yellow. He watched the ants crawl across the mangoes, and he knew where they paused to sniff the sugar inside.

Pong looked at his friend, Somkit, and gave him a short nod. Somkit wasn’t shouting at the mangoes, either. He was sitting under the branch that Pong had told him to sit under, waiting. Somkit had been waiting an hour, and he’d wait for hours more if he had to, because the most important thing to wait for in Namwon were the mangoes.

He and Pong were both nine years old, both orphans. Somkit was a head shorter than Pong, and skinny — even for a prisoner. He had a wide, round face, and the other kids teased him that he looked like those grilled rice balls on sticks that old ladies sold from their boats.

Like many of the women at Namwon, their mothers had been sent there because they’d been caught stealing. Both their mothers had died in childbirth, though from the stories the other women still told, Somkit’s birth had been more memorable and involved feet showing up where a head was supposed to be.

Pong wagged his finger at his friend to get him to scoot to the left.

A little more.

A little more. ­


Finally, after all that waiting, Pong heard the soft pop of a mango stem. He gasped and smiled as the first mango of the season dropped straight into Somkit’s waiting arms.

But before Pong could join his friend and share their triumph, two older girls noticed what Somkit held in his hands.

“Hey, did you see that?” said one of the girls, propping herself up on her knobby elbows.

“Sure did,” said the other, cracking scab- covered knuckles. “Hey, Skin- and- Bones,” she called to Somkit. “What do you got for me today?”

“Uh-oh,” said Somkit, cradling the mango in one hand and bracing himself to stand up with the other.

He was useless in a fight, which meant that everyone liked fighting him the most. And he couldn’t run more than a few steps without coughing, which meant the fights usually ended badly.

Pong turned toward the guards who were leaning against the wall behind him, looking almost as bored with life in Namwon as the prisoners were.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Pong, bowing to the first guard.

She sucked on her teeth and slowly lifted one eyebrow.

“Ma’am, it’s those girls,” said Pong. “I think they’re going to take —”

“And what do you want me to do about it?” she snapped. “You kids need to learn to take care of yourselves.” ­

The other guard snorted. “Might be good for you to get kicked around a little. Toughen you up.”

A hot, angry feeling fluttered inside Pong’s chest. Of course the guards wouldn’t help. When did they ever? He looked at the women prisoners. ­ They stared back at him with flat, resigned eyes. ­ They were far past caring about one miserable mango.

Pong turned away from them and hurried back to his friend. ­ The girls approached Somkit slowly, savoring the coming brawl. “Quick, climb on,” he said, dropping to one knee.

“What?” said Somkit.

“Just get on!”

“Oh, man, I know how this is gonna turn out,” grumbled Somkit as he climbed onto Pong’s back, still clutching the mango.

Pong knew, too, but it couldn’t be helped. Because while Pong was better than anyone at paying attention, and almost as good as Somkit at waiting, he was terrible at ignoring when things weren’t fair.

And the most important thing to do in Namwon was to forget about life being fair.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked the knobby-elbowed girl as she strode toward them.

“We caught this mango, fair and square,” said Pong, backing himself and Somkit away.

“You sure did,” said her scab- knuckled friend. “And if you hand it over right now, we’ll only punch you once each. Fair and square.”

“Just do it,” whispered Somkit. “It’s not worth —”

“You don’t deserve it just because you want it,” said Pong firmly. “And you’re not taking it from us.”

“Is that right?” said the girls. “Oh, man.” Somkit sighed. “Here we go!” ­ The girls shrieked and Pong took off . ­ They chased him as he galloped around and around the courtyard with Somkit clinging onto his back like a baby monkey.

“You can never just let things go!” Somkit shouted.

“We can’t . . . let them have it!” panted Pong. “It’s ours!” He dodged around clumps of smaller children, who watched gleefully, relieved not to be the ones about to get the life pummeled out of them.

“So what? A mango isn’t worth getting beat up over.” Somkit looked over his shoulder. “Go faster, man — they’re going to catch us!” ­

The guards leaning against the wall laughed as they watched the chase. “Go on, girls. Get ’em!” said one.

“Not yet, though,” said the other guard. “­ This is the best entertainment we’ve had all week!”

“I’m . . . getting . . . tired.” Pong huffed. “You better . . . eat that thing before I collapse!”

Warm mango juice dripped down the back of Pong’s neck as Somkit tore into the fruit with his teeth. “Oh, man. I was wrong. ­ This is worth getting beat up over.” Somkit reached over his friend’s shoulder and stuck a plug of mango into the corner of Pong’s mouth.

It was ripe and sweet, not stringy yet. Paradise.


Copyright © 2020 by Christina Soontornvat