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A Wish in the Dark

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A boy on the run. A girl determined to find him.

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, and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

384 pages, ebook

First published March 24, 2020

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About the author

Christina Soontornvat

24 books439 followers
Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). Christina is the author of the fantasy middle grade series, The Changelings, and the early chapter book series, Diary of an Ice Princess. Her forthcoming books include the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark, and All Thirteen, a nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue.

In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 962 reviews
Profile Image for may ➹.
463 reviews1,852 followers
May 22, 2021
reread 5/22/21: perfect book is perfect (edited review to come)

// buddy read with ju, melanie, & kate!


A Wish in the Dark is a middle grade fantasy that follows two children: Pong, a boy who escapes the prison he was born in, and Nok, the prison warden’s daughter who has become a warrior. As Nok tries to track him down, Pong discovers how the rich of Chattana thrive while the poor struggle, and he and his friend Somkit band together to bring justice.

I’ve said before that I felt like this book was flawless, and I still stand by it. Immediately after I finished it, I remember smiling broadly and thinking about how perfect it felt. I kept waiting for some flaws to surface in my mind, and I truly couldn’t think of anything.

“Well, sometimes light shines on the worthy. But sometimes it just shines on the lucky ones. And sometimes… Sometimes good people get trapped in the dark.”

Pong is a boy who was imprisoned and treated unfairly because of his mother. He simply yearns to be free, but he also is extremely good-hearted and kind. Nok, on the other hand, is fierce and determined, but still struggling to define her ideas of right and wrong, just like any kid growing up is. Both of these characters are growing, developing their ideas of the world, and learning how to fight for others.

I think an important part of this book is the relationships that the characters form with one another. First and foremost, I adore the sweet friendship between Pong and Somkit. Their brotherhood and support for each other is at the forefront of their interactions, and it is so heartwarming to see how much they have grown to love each other.

Some other relationships I enjoyed include Father Cham, a mentor to Pong. Monks are highly respected in Thai culture, so I loved seeing him teach Pong important life lessons, all Buddhist-inspired. And I also fell in love with Nok’s relationship with her parents! Though there were rough patches, especially as Nok was trying to determine her place in the world on her own, but her parents made certain that she knew they always loved her.

No matter what he did, he could not shut off the light that poured out of the people of Chattana.

I appreciate so much about this book, especially how it artfully tackles social issues such as poverty and wealth distribution. Chattana depends on orb lights, for everything from light to electricity to heating. The system is set up against people who can’t afford the better types of lights and therefore cannot achieve the same quality standards of living, and the rich turn away from their struggles.

Soontornvat talks of privilege and unfairness, discusses how the affluent don’t care about the poor, and, most importantly, questions whether you can actually make a change, when you recognize injustice and believe you cannot do anything about it. She writes these themes in a meticulous way that makes them easy for kids to understand, yet encourages them to explore these issues for themselves.

What really is the cherry on top for me, though, is that this book is brimming with Thai culture. Everything—the names, the food, the customs, the monks, the cover—is gloriously Thai, and seeing my culture written so lovingly means the absolute world to me. Political turmoil and revolution is woven into Thailand’s history, and I love that some of that same kind of rebellion was depicted here. (I also would like to note that there is a lot of mango love, and I, especially as a Thai, wholeheartedly approve.)

“You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.”

You will grow fond of these characters quickly and root for them to bring justice, and you’ll fall in love with the world that it’s set in as well as the culture it draws from. When you finish the book, the only possible reaction is to smile and feel like your heart is expanding beyond your chest.

Even if you don’t normally read middle grade, I am begging you to pick this up! Not only because it means the world to me for being a Thai-inspired fantasy and having so much Thai culture in its pages, but because it truly is written on another level. A Wish in the Dark is infused with so much warmth and tenderness, in the big hearts of its characters, in its hope-filled revolutions, and in its message that though there will always be darkness, there will also be—in equal amounts—radiant, brilliant light.

:: representation :: all-Thai cast

:: content warnings :: death, drowning, fire

Thank you to Candlewick Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! This did not my affect my opinion in any way.

All quotes are from an advance copy and may differ in final publication.
Profile Image for Gavin Hetherington.
665 reviews5,306 followers
May 2, 2020
Beautifully told story about privilege and humility with a middle grade Les Misérables twist.

Pong was born in a prison and therefore automatically condemned behind bars. Finding his life unfair, he manages to escape prison and start a new life elsewhere. However, the consequences of his escape has been felt by Nok's family. She is the daughter of a prison warden who is being blamed for Pong's escape. Desperate to restore her family name, Nok makes it her mission to find Pong and put him back behind bars.

At first, I didn't know how this was loosely a Les Misérables retelling, but then it made total sense the more I read. Pong is totally Jean Valjean and Nok is Javert. This makes this entire novel a bit of a cat-and-mouse chase between them where I could sympathise with both sides - Pong's situation is totally unfair because he was born in prison and hasn't done anything wrong, whereas Nok is just trying to do what she thinks is right for her family. I loved this dynamic and it made for the most interesting read.

I love learning of a whole different culture and when I say this book is beautifully-written, I truly mean it, down to the messages spoken so boldly in the text. Soontornvat knows how to write character relationships as I also really loved the mentorship role of Father Cham to Pong.

I can't recommend this enough!
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 27 books5,589 followers
November 30, 2021
This was glorious. I had no idea what it was, I thought it was just straight up the story of some children in Thailand. If someone had told me it was a fantasy retelling of Les Miserables, I would have read it much sooner! Although it was really quite fun to get a copy for my daughter to participate in our library's online book group, and then have her slap it down next to me and say, "Your turn! And hurry!"

And I both did and didn't hurry. I savored this book, even as I couldn't put it down at times. It was really wonderful on all levels: as a retelling of the source, as a standalone fantasy novel, as a story about finding the good in the world and in yourself, as a story about family and friendship. I think this would be a great classroom read, and I hope the Newbery Honor draws people into it so that it can be used that way.
Profile Image for Kate.
391 reviews231 followers
August 18, 2021
One of my absolute favorite things about A Wish in the Dark is how it explored the effects of incarceration. There are so many studies out there that talk about the actual, non-helpful effects of incarceration and the institutionalized bigotry in the penal system. I won’t go into all of that. But reading A Wish in the Dark will definitely give you food for thought in that direction.

Of absolute interest here is the way Nok’s mind works. She believes deeply in the justice system of Chattana. Her view of right and wrong is very clearly black and white. But meeting Pong, as well as certain discoveries about herself, make her begin to question her long-held beliefs. Seeing Nok live amongst the citizens of Chattana and realize the abject poverty that they experience definitely gives a lot of lessons that are applicable to real life.

Things like inequality and poverty are usually the cause of crime. This book explores how officials like the Governor as well as the wealthy citizens of Chattana exploit this inequality to stay on top. It’s a lesson that’s super relevant in today’s political climate. As a Filipino, it resonated with me deeply.

But most importantly, this book is so very warm, tender, and hopeful about the lessons it seeks to impart. Middle grade books that set out to teach a lesson while also remaining gentle and kind are some of my favorite things. And A Wish in the Dark accomplished this beautifully!

Read my full review here.
Profile Image for julianna ➹.
207 reviews264 followers
May 25, 2021
OH MY GOD. I will officially be reading every single book I get recommended if they're all this good.

also, I will be meeting the governor (the antagonist of this novel) in the parking lot saturday afternoon 3:15 pm est, and I invite you all to come WATCH.

rtc because more 🗣️ people 🗣️ need to read 🗣️ this novel

( buddy read w/ may, mel, kate, lily, camillea, & kal!!! )

—representation: a completely thai cast! (ownvoices w/ a thai-am author)

—content/trigger warnings:


this is one of those books where i literally know NOTHING about the plot or synopsis, and yet i am reading it because i am a (platonic) simp

maybe that's just being a friend though, don't know, will update
Profile Image for chloe yeung ♡.
392 reviews265 followers
March 31, 2020
i received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. all opinions below are my own.

"you can't run away from darkness," pong whispered. "it's everywhere. the only way to see through it is to shine a light."

the french novel les misérables is famous for exploring the topics of poverty, wealth disparity and justice, and these are all handled equally well in a wish in the dark, which has been dubbed “a retelling of les misérables set in a thai-inspired world”.

in the book, social status is represented by what kind of orbs you use. since fire is banned, orbs are the only source of light for the citizens of chattana, but not everyone can afford the best ones – the rich bask in the luxury of bright lights, while the poor can only use the dimmest, cheapest kind of light. i loved the clever use of symbolism, and the world-building was so amazing. thailand, with its delicious food, friendly people, and rich culture, is one of my favorite countries in the entire world, and i enjoyed seeing it represented in the form of a fantasy world ❤

the relationships in this book gave me the warmest fuzzies. the friendship between somkit and pong is so, so beautiful – they are always there for each other, and each one of them are so forgiving and loyal towards the other. i also loved father cham and how he always manages to see the good in every single person. his little blessings for pong are so incredibly sweet, and i couldn’t help smiling at every one of them. on top of that, we witness the development of nok’s relationship with her parents – in the beginning, nok feels that she’s seen as “imperfect” and always worries about ruining her family’s reputation, but at the end, her father explains the truth to her and tells her how much he loves her, and i literally couldn't stop smiling giddily.

in conclusion, a wish in the dark is a story with wholesome relationships and incredible world-building, discussing social issues such as wealth disparity and equality through beautiful storytelling. the book made me so happy, and i highly recommend it ♡

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Profile Image for rain.
600 reviews335 followers
May 16, 2021
hello i have found a new favorite book!!!

a wish in the dark possesses everything that i love in a middle grade book: it's whimsical, full of heart, boasts great character arcs, and delivers important lessons to its readers. i enjoyed every chapter, and i think soontornvat flawlessly executed how a book with a dual pov should be. it was enthralling to follow nok and pong, and see their character development from start to finish. somkit is also a ball of light that brought me a lot of laughs.

perfect writing voice and great characterization aside, i highly commend this book for imparting lessons regarding injustice and mobilization against corrupt people in power. this book shows how powerful a peaceful demonstration can be to bring about change, and ultimately, how this alarms people in power no matter how trivial they may think the gesture is. (i see this clownery all the time with govt officials in the philippines :))

i have a lot of praises to sing for this book!! READ IT I'M SURE YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.
Profile Image for Maëlys.
297 reviews270 followers
July 14, 2021
“You can't run away from darkness...It's everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.”

Les Misérables is a very meaningful book to me and I’m so happy I got to read this retelling. It already stole my heart by starting off with kids around a mango tree but it’s an absolutely perfect approach for a modern middle grade adaptation. Christina Soontornvat made very smart choices when it came to transferring the story into this Thai-inspired fantasy world while keeping the heart of its message intact. I could go on and on about the parallels that can be drawn and it was so fun being on the lookout for them.

Chattana and its harmless lights seem like a perfect utopia with the Governor at its head providing order and peace since rescuing everyone after the Great Fire that partially destroyed the city. Pong, one of the children of the Namwon Prison, longs for these lights and the freedom that would come with being near them. However, the Governor is not the hero he imagined him to be and his illusions of fairness and justice are shattered in one encounter.

“Is this how a dream died? On the lips of reasonable people?”

After this day, Pong’s sense of righteousness deflates and once he’s able to escape the prison he takes refuge with monks, the only way for him to hide the tattoo branding him as a fugitive. Years later, Nok, the ex-warden’s daughter, sets after him in the hopes of restoring her family’s honour and escape the rumours surrounding her true parentage. While chasing Pong, however, she slowly opens her eyes to the inequalities plaguing Chattana, questioning the privileged outlook she’s always had on justice.

This book explores seamlessly the systems put in place to keep the poorest in darkness with heartfelt commentary and beautiful imagery. The unattainable lights of Chattana seem so beautiful glittering on the surface of water and are not only a perfect allegory of this world’s injustices and the story’s themes but also part of its alluding and whimsical magic.

Other strong points of this book are its endearing characters and complex familial relationships. It’s hard not to root for Pong and his best friend Somkit completely steals the show in my opinion. Their friendship is truly so wholesome but also brings a well appreciated note of humour throughout the book. I have a particular soft spot for Father Cham and his strong belief that small acts of love and compassion are the real magic capable of changing the world.

I’m picky about my Les Mis adaptations but this truly made my heart feel so full and it did not disappoint.


Buddy read with Melanie
Profile Image for Danielle.
Author 2 books222 followers
May 2, 2020
This story of Pong, of Nok, of a Thai-inspired fantasy city called Chattana completely captivated and carried me away. This book is an adventure with depth, a book about light that illuminates inequalities and moral quandaries, full of compelling characters to follow and feel for.

"You can't run away from darkness...it's everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light."
Profile Image for Iris.
543 reviews252 followers
February 18, 2021
hi I loved this omg, I don't read a lot of middle grade but this book makes me want to pick up more, because it was just so delightful. it balanced a lot of social commentary and big themes with the whimsical hopefulness of middle grade and I'm just AHHH warm fuzzy feels
Profile Image for Jenna (Falling Letters).
645 reviews59 followers
March 27, 2020
Review originally published 27 March 2020 at Falling Letters. I received a free copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Content warnings:

Of all the books I’ve read this year, A Wish in the Dark feels most keenly relevant to today’s world. (…I mean that in a broad sense, not a COVID-19 sense). Soontornvat has penned a moving story about the importance of believing in positive change and standing up for what’s right, both at a personal and community level. The story’s touch of magic (in the form of magical orbs providing light and energy) serves to visualize and make concrete a system of structural poverty.
Everything in Chattana – every orb, every cookstove, every boat motor – all of it ran on the Governor’s light-making powers. (Loc 187)
Nok and Pong find themselves caught up in a grander movement to shift the balance of power in Chattana. Their lived experiences lead them to initially resist that movement, albeit for different reasons. Pong has internalized the words he’s had pushed on him all his life. The Governor, destroying Pong’s idolization of him, tells Pong “Those who are born in darkness always return. You’ll see” (loc 217).
He was a runaway and a thief and a liar, and if there was a word for someone who disrespects a monk in his own temple, he was that, too. it had all happened so fast. In the span of a few days, Pong had become exactly what the Governor said he was. (Loc 419).
Nok comes from a privileged (albeit imperfect by high society’s standards) family and has benefited from following the rules. She doesn’t realize that following the rules doesn’t guarantee a good life for everyone. Nok’s father also turns out be a more complex character than I initially assumed. I love a backstory that involves a character’s parents in middle grade fiction.

In following Pong and Nok’s experiences, A Wish in the Dark can serve as a gentle, clear introduction to social inequity and activism. I think it is difficult to write a book for children on such topics without coming off as didactic. But Soontornvat strikes a good balance between telling an entertaining fictional story and making a pointed observation about the world in which the reader lives.
If a march were all it took to stop the Governor and his rich friends, someone would’ve done it already! (Loc 2244)
Soontornvat writes in third person limited from both Pong and Nok’s perspectives. (I think Pong receives more page time). Despite not being a POV character, I have to highlight Pong’s childhood friend Som. Like Pong, Som was born in the prison, where he lived until he aged out. Som has learnt to live a life vastly different from Pong’s. As Pong does, I wondered why Som didn’t appear to harbour any ill will towards Pong. This point is eventually addressed in a way I didn’t expect. Their friendship was a highlight of the book for me. (The scene in which they reunite kept me on my toes!)

The Bottom Line:A Wish in the Dark infuses important messages and examples about social justice into a creative and vivid light fantasy story set in a Thai-analogue world. ★★★★.

(Also, it’s a Les Misérables retelling! As with More to the Story , I didn’t know that til after I finished the book, haha).
Profile Image for Camille.
77 reviews11 followers
May 9, 2020
This book has been on my radar for over a year, so to be fortunate enough to receive an ARC, I was beyond happy to get a chance to read it early. Upon finishing it, I can definitely say it's become one of my favorite reads of 2020 so far.

Cleverly written, absorbing. I enjoyed the fact that AWITD wasn't info dumpy which I feel a lot of fantasy books fall victim to; the flow of the story felt very easygoing. I'm amazed by how many things Soontornvat's done well with this book-- her use of symbolism (i.e. the whole light/darkness and colored orbs paralleling the rich from the poor, the supposed "worthy" from the "unworthy"), the messages she portrayed and the way she addressed justice and privilege. She does it in a way that's not overly preachy but in a smart and heartfelt way that makes you genuinely care and think and question on why the world is the way it is.

I loved seeing the juxtaposition between our two main protagonists, Pong and Nok. It really felt as if they were the yin and yang to each other. You have Pong, who just wants to escape his life in prison and be free. And Nok, the prison warden's daughter, who has molded herself into this girl who always follows the law and does what's right because that's what she's grown up accustomed to believing. Seeing how these two characters transform from beginning to end, it really made everything come together beautifully. It just goes to show nothing's ever set in stone and people can always change.

This book also had one of the best set of minor characters I've ever read about. Father Cham, a monk and Pong's mentor. It was so essential to have him be a part of this story because he really kickstarted Pong's journey towards finding himself and that's really what Pong needed. Someone to see beyond the surface and see him as a good-hearted human being, not just a product of his environment. Then, we have the righteous Ampai, who showed Pong the value of community and the power of movement. And who could forget about Somkit? Pong's fellow prisoner. Innovative, entertaining, and a loyal friend all the way to the end, his and Pong's friendship was very touching. The bonds that Pong had with each of these characters tied everything up seamlessly and made the book all the more special.

Don't underestimate middle grade literature because this book is a prime example of just how impactful this genre can be if it's done well. I'd be more than happy to recommend this book to any teacher, friend, human being out there.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for providing me an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Skip.
3,223 reviews394 followers
November 26, 2020
A middle grade fantasy set in Thailand, following a common trope of rich/privileged versus the downtrodden/poor. Set in the divided city of Chattana, which is under the iron rule of the Governor, who has brought peace by banning the fires that almost destroyed the city and selling magical lights. The protagonist Pong, lives in a prison, because his mother was incarcerated. He is a strange boy, listening to the world around him, including mangoes ripening so that he and his BFF, Somkit, can get these treats. Pong escapes, and finds his way to a monastery outside the city, where the mystical head monk sees something special in Pong. Meanwhile, the prison warden is disgraced by the escape and his daughter, Nok, decides she needs to redeem the family name by bringing Nok to justice. When the head monk dies, Pong mistakenly ends up back in Chattana, reuniting with Somkit, to join a movement for justice. And Nok learns some family secrets that forever change her loyalties. 4.5 stars. Memorable.
Profile Image for Livia Blackburne.
Author 12 books1,252 followers
April 20, 2021
This book was so magical and had so much heart. Usually, when I’m reading, I’m picking up on techniques that I love about the book, but here I just soaked in the themes of friendship, grace, forgiveness, redemption, and freedom. One of those books that just leave you feeling hopeful about the world.
Profile Image for Laura Janette.
90 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2020
I didn’t realize until I finished reading, this is a creative take on Les Miserables. I don’t know why, but I struggled to get hooked. It was a good read, but I wanted to like it more than I did.
Profile Image for Joy Kirr.
987 reviews128 followers
July 18, 2021
What really struck me about this one... is that we can believe what we are told, even if it's not true. We hear many voices, and some stick with us. Words are so very powerful, and we must choose them carefully. We must listen to them carefully, and we must talk to our own selves carefully. The words of the Governor to Pong of "the world is full of darkness, and that will never change" clashed with the words of Father Cham - "You have a good heart." It's so sad that we cling to the negative words we hear about ourselves, even when we hear differently from others. Even if what we think in our hearts to be true conflicts with the negative messages. I'm thankful Pong learned that "The only way to see through it [the darkness] is to shine a light." I'm grateful for Pong and Somkit's story, including Nok (the Law Commissioner's daughter), Ampai (who ran the Mud House), Mark (who cooked for the Mud House inhabitants) and Officer Manit.
412 reviews13 followers
July 9, 2020
Listened to audiobook at 1.2x. Combines elements of Les Mis, fantasy, and social issues. I do have a problem when books concerned with social issues lean heavily on a few individual characters who wield outsized influence on the course of events and are thus constantly and improbably thrown against each other. For example, it's fine to have the march, and have Pong, Nok, and Somkit all present for it, but I think it's a concession and weakness for all three to be such literally front-and-center players that dictate what happens. It's a little similar to one of my issues with THUG. I think it is in fact possible to have your protagonists caught up and present in larger moments without having them be the "star" of them. In fact, that would make those moments and the issues they represent less cheap, because they aren't also being co-opted as a spotlight for your heroes. And that doesn't make your characters any less important, or sympathetic, or interesting. Part of the greatness of books like Les Mis, War and Peace, et al. is how characters are situated against the mass of humanity and history.
Profile Image for Finitha Jose.
292 reviews48 followers
January 19, 2022
The first thing that I thought after finishing the last page is 'Where did I come to know this book from?'. Is it GoodReads, Twitter or another book blog? I don't have the slightest idea. The book has been on my TBR for more than a month now and I am so grateful to whoever made me add this to my shelf. So here I am, passing on the baton hoping that 'A Wish in the Dark' will find a place on many more bookshelves.
Most have categorised it as a middle-grade children's story, but I feel that this belong to the young adult. Intricately woven, the novel starts from Namwon prison to the monastery in the outskirts and back to Chattana assembling a plethora of characters uniquely crafted. What I loved the most about this book is the good feeling it projects, just like Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables'. As a huge fan of this classic (the abridged version that is), it is no coincidence that I fell completely for it.
Pong might be the central character but the one that drew my attention was Nok. She reminded me a lot of one of my classmates, the daughter of a police officer, who supported the third-degree interrogation methods. Well, law and order need to be maintained, but that is not an excuse for being inhuman. I wish Nok had come to her senses even without that shocking reveal.
Inspiring, poignant and dramatic -- yup, that is exactly what this story felt. A blessing in the darkest times.

To know the summary of the book, please visit: https://finithajose.blogspot.com/2022...
Profile Image for Josiah.
3,201 reviews142 followers
May 24, 2021
Now and then I come across a book that is the stuff of pure wonder. Christina Soontornvat's A Wish in the Dark, recipient of a 2021 Newbery Honor, is one such book, a tale of liberty and responsibility that transcends time and place as the best children's literature does. There isn't much upside to life at Namwon Prison, not for children born to the women incarcerated there. The kids are required to stay on the property as though they, too, were prisoners, and aren't granted release until they turn thirteen years old. Nine-year-old best friends Pong and Somkit have spent their lives doing menial labor and subsisting on scraps of food. Their mothers died in childbirth, and neither boy has any other family, so they're bound to the prison for another four years. After that, their home will be the streets of Chattana City, where few prison kids ever make anything of themselves. Pong aspires to someday work for the Governor, who saved Chattana from ruin nearly a half century ago after the Great Fire burned it to ash. Using magic, the Governor can conjure light at will, filling glass orbs with it that hang all over the city, and Chattana's fortunes improved as he took power and implemented reform. Could a lost boy like Pong work for this miracle man? Pong refuses to lose hope.

When the Governor comes to Namwon for a special appearance, Pong gets up close to have a word with his hero. It goes badly, and Pong's rosy image of the Governor is tarnished. Was he right in saying Pong is destined for a future of criminal depravity? The Governor's cruel words deeply wound Pong, but he isn't the only kid at Namwon who looked forward to meeting the Governor. Nok Sivapan, young daughter of the prison warden, is dedicated to the pursuit of perfection: academics, personal conduct, career ambition, training in the art of spire-fighting...if there's a way to demonstrate excellence, Nok is already doing it, and getting better by the day. Her future seems to have little to do with Pong's until one afternoon when Pong, on a whim, hides in a trash receptacle in a desperate attempt to escape Namwon. Surely the gambit won't work, even he knows that, but the trash man empties the container onto a boat bound for Chattana, and somehow, improbably, Pong is free. Can he evade detection long enough that officers from Namwon won't figure out what happened?

Waiting until age thirteen is the legal way to leave Namwon; any deviation from that is a crime, but after his encounter with the Governor, Pong felt he couldn't survive at the prison much longer. He feels guilty about leaving Somkit behind, but he had to take the opportunity...right? Stealthily moving down the river into Chattana, Pong is mesmerized by the city's lustrous sights and sounds. The West Side is a veritable parade of marvels, wealthy people enjoying modern amenities in their stylish homes; the East Side is more deprived, but better than prison. The thousands of glass orbs remind Pong of the Governor's magic, which illuminates the city without having to rely on flame so there will never be another Great Fire to destroy Chattana. Pong drifts beyond the city to the mountain village of Tanaburi, home to a Buddhist monastery. Hiding here might be an option were it not for the tattoo on Pong's arm, given to all children at Namwon. The tattoo is supposed to get a cancel mark through it once they age out of the program, so Pong's is a clear sign that he's a runaway; if caught, a cell at the men's prison, Banglad, awaits. Pong has never met an adult who received him with an open mind, but his time in Tanaburi may surprise him.

Does anyone not love Father Cham? People listen when the elderly monk speaks, and Pong is no exception. Father Cham bestows on him a series of small, helpful blessings, each represented by its own white bracelet on the left wrist that, added together, happen to cover Pong's tattoo. Father Cham invites him to stay at Tanaburi as long as he needs. Days melt into weeks, then years; soon Pong is the age he would have been released from Namwon, though because he left early he will always be a fugitive. Prayerful mornings and quiet evenings with Father Cham have eased Pong's anxiety and deepened his spiritual energy. He hardly thinks about Namwon, the Governor, or even Somkit; he just might spend the rest of his days working and studying at Tanaburi, atoning for the sin of being born to a criminal mother. With Father Cham as his mentor, the years ahead may, for once, be kind to Pong.

At Namwon, things have not gone well for Nok Sivapan's family. Pong's disappearance was assumed to be a drowning, and blame assigned to Warden Sivapan. He has a different government job now, but the stain remains on his record. Nok, who wants a career in police work when she grows up, intends to make up for her father's mistake, and the ideal scenario falls into her lap when the Sivapans visits Tanaburi on official business. Pong looks different enough that Nok almost doesn't recognize him...but when she realizes she's on the track of solving a major cold case, she decides that nabbing Pong is the key to her future career. He must have escaped Namwon and hid here, pretending to be a monk; she won't let him get away with such disrespect of a religious institution. Pong is savvy, but Nok has trained for this all her life. Father Cham's wise lessons and soothing words can't keep Pong from being locked up in Banglad.

Nothing will deter Nok, but Pong is resourceful. Father Cham always said Pong has a good heart, which the boy never quite believed, but he has friends who would risk their own freedom to protect him. Not many bad kids can say that. In Chattana, Somkit is starting out on his own new life beyond the walls of Namwon, and has hooked on with a group of East Side residents who believe it's time for the city to change. The Governor's arrival forty years ago brought light and law, but he's becoming despotic; he would rather build prisons than a proper school system to get kids on the right track early in life. The Governor alone controls the power of light, and can plunge the city into darkness at any moment...or can he? Somkit, who has an affinity for mechanics and science, has invented a way for even the poorest East Siders to have the highest quality light, without the Governor's help. This would revolutionize the city, weakening its autocratic leader...and the Governor won't be happy about that. Pong gets sucked into a war of ideology that puts him in the spotlight, a vulnerable position for a fugitive. How strongly does he believe in opposing the Governor's rigid system? Even if Somkit can provide East Siders all the light they need, will the average citizen stand up against the charismatic Governor? Life and death, liberty and fear collide as tension mounts in Chattana. The lines between good and evil, liar and truth teller, outlaw and hero are getting blurry, but if Pong, Somkit, and Nok can figure out who they are at their core, they may be able to save Chattana. But will there be anything left of the city to save?

A Wish in the Dark is an absorbing, thoughtful story that pulled me quickly through its three hundred seventy-five pages. The two primary themes could each easily support a full-length novel. Pong has been told since birth that his mother's past renders him a criminal by extension, and as a nine-year-old, his hero worship of the Governor makes it that much more traumatic when the man condemns him as a worthless street rat. "The world is full of darkness, and that will never change", he whispers to Pong. "Those who are born in darkness always return." The Governor doesn't mind tossing people on society's junk heap; it's convenient to assume the son of an outlaw will share the same bent to do wrong. Nok, too, has been raised to believe the Governor's rhetoric. To her, it doesn't matter that Pong had no control of where he was born or his mother's identity; he was legally obligated to stay at Namwon until he turned thirteen, and failing to do so must be punished. But there's a difference between the edicts of the ruling class, and morality itself; when public policy violates human rights, one has a duty to break the law. There are gray areas to this, and pushing back on tyranny is scary, but if you stick by what you know is right, you'll never regret it.

"You can't run away from darkness...It's everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light."

—Pong, A Wish in the Dark, P. 324

Father Cham has the gift of bestowing blessings that always come true, but even in his wisdom, he struggles to know how he should apply the gift. He speaks of this to Pong. "There was a time when I was a younger man, before I learned my lesson, when I did grant the types of blessings you are talking about. I wanted to use my gift to help people, to wish away all the pain and suffering in this world. But it was arrogant of me to think that I alone could save the world. And my gifts went awry...In ways that were more complicated and unexpected than you can imagine. I learned the hard way that it's not up to me to save people or to force the world to bend to my desires, even if I have good intentions." Frustrating as it is, you can't solve people's problems for them. Persistent issues in an individual's life have root causes that no politician, philanthropist, or activist can fix. The Governor's magic illuminates a whole city, but disincentivizes the people from finding a longterm solution to having good, safe energy for their homes. Pong emphasizes this when someone points out that Somkit's lighting plan can't improve on what the Governor gives them right now. "The point wasn't to outshine him," Pong says. "The point was to show him...The point was to show yourselves that you don't need him. You don't need his light. You don't need his laws. You can do it without him." If any human authority is your source of light, you have lost something more precious than safety and security: freedom. Bucking the system is anxious, discouraging work, and many will offer reasons why it can't or shouldn't be done. As Pong listens in on a complaints session among those who share his desire to liberate Chattana, he marvels how easy it is to give up on something as important as autonomy. "Is this how a dream died?" he wonders. "On the lips of reasonable people?" When the downtrodden shrug their shoulders at tyranny, that's the final step toward accepting it as "the way things are." Liberty can be retained, however, if we refuse to surrender to adversity, and that's what Pong and his associates want for Chattana.

This book was an excellent choice for a Newbery Honor; I might argue it deserved the Medal. 2021 was the first year an author won multiple Newberys since E.L. Konigsburg in 1968 (Christina Soontornvat also earned an Honor for All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team). A Wish in the Dark is briskly paced, emotionally resonant, and full of the sort of nuanced philosophy that defined Newbery winners from yesteryear such as Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. The original cover art by Ji-Hyuk Kim is luminous and cinematic, a perfect fit with the story. I'd likely rate A Wish in the Dark three and a half stars, and Christina Soontornvat has joined the ranks of my favorite authors. I'm grateful we have this book.
Profile Image for USOM.
2,277 reviews189 followers
March 23, 2020
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)

At first I was skeptical of how A Wish in the Dark could pull off a Les Mis re-telling for middle grade audiences, but I had no reason to be. A Wish in the Dark tackles the same issues of privilege, justice, and corruption in thoughtful ways for middle grade audiences. It asks us the price of staying quiet, of being complicit in a system that is unfair. Retaining elements of Les Mis, A Wish in the Dark is delightfully Asian and full of heart. It has such a fabulous and tender friendship between two boys, Pong and his friend, which I think is so important to see in a middle grade.

At the same time, A Wish in the Dark retains the heart, emotions, and important questions. Both characters, Pong and Nok - there are dual perspectives for each child - have this heart even though they are on complete different sides. Pong is impulsive, but has a good heart even though he is weighed down by guilt. Whereas Nok has a strong heart, but a strong idealism in justice that doesn't function in our real world. Even though it may be harder for some to empathize with Nok, I found her relatable. We can be so trusting, so driven by this mentality of absolute right and wrong, that we fail to see the shades of grey, the pieces of humanity.

full review: https://utopia-state-of-mind.com/revi...
Profile Image for Kathie.
Author 2 books61 followers
January 29, 2020
ALL THE STARS!!! This is my favorite read of 2020 so far; in fact, it's been a VERY long time since I've loved a book as much as I loved A WISH IN THE DARK. Thank you to the author for sending an ARC to #bookportage for review.

I'm not going to try and review this book. Others can tell you how it's masterfully written, inspired by Les Miserables in a Thai-inspired world with a touch of magic. I've never read or seen Les Mis, I can't tell you how it compares, but I will tell you I'm convinced it would disappoint me after reading this book. I feel like this world completely sucked me in, and I never wanted it to end (and with my general dislike for big books, you know that's saying something!) Po's journey of discovery twists and turns, sometimes leading forward, while at other times looping back and revisiting obstacles from his past. There's just SO much to this story, and I hope that it will speak to some young reader the way Les Mis originally spoke to the author.

This book comes out the end of March 2020, and I HIGHLY recommend you pick up a copy.

Profile Image for Ms. B.
2,796 reviews35 followers
July 18, 2022
What kind of future can you have in society whose motto is, "The law is the light, and the light shines on the worthy"? Find out in this story story about three young teens, Pong, Nora, and Somkit growing up in Chattana, a futuristic place. Two are orphans and one is the daughter of a prominent member of society. What happens where their worlds converge?
A 2021 Newbery Honor, give this one to fans of science fiction and/or fantasy stories.
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