A Wish in the Dark
A Wish in the Dark

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Annotation: Escaping from the prison where he was born, Pong discovers harrowing truths about the gap between the world's privileged ruling class and impoverished laborers, while the prison warden's daughter who is hunting him uncovers other daunting secrets.
Catalog Number: #287667
Format: Perma-Bound Edition from Publisher's Hardcover
All Formats: Search
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Copyright Date: 2020
Edition Date: 2020
Pages: 375 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 1-536-20494-3 Perma-Bound: 0-7804-9632-9
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-1-536-20494-0 Perma-Bound: 978-0-7804-9632-3
Dewey: Fic
Dimensions: 20 cm.
Language: English
Horn Book
Soontornvat balances inner change and political action with insight and stylistic flair in this fantastical Les Miserables retelling. In Chattana City, the Governor wields a power that is almost absolute and, ever since the Great Fire, he has been the sole distributor and regulator of light. "Light shines on the worthy," he says, decreeing that the poor will live in gloom and the rich in effulgence. To Pong, born in a prison and destined by law to stay there until age thirteen, there's no justice in the Governor's claim. When he gets a chance to escape in a stinky load of fruit rinds, he goes, landing in the care of a gentle Buddhist monk. But Nok, the prison warden's rule-following daughter, is bent on capturing him; forced to flee again, Pong is drawn into a plan for peaceful protest against Chattana's unjust laws. Alternating between Pong's and Nok's stories, Soontornvat tells a satisfyingly intricate tale of escape and chase while raising questions about institutionalized injustices of privilege and want. Her Thai-inspired world is fully engaging, but perhaps most winning are the innocence, hope, and humor she conveys in the context of the struggle for social justice and with respect to the children's growth.
Kirkus Reviews
A fugitive from prison must evade his pursuer, the prison warden's daughter, while potentially joining a revolution.Pong has lived his whole life in Namwon Prison until a chance escape leaves him free in the city of Chattana. Pong quickly finds that freedom does not come so easily: Since the Great Fire, Chattana is under the strict control of the Governor, who creates the magical lights that run the city and that are the only lights allowed. Marked as a prisoner, Pong has nowhere to turn. Worse, the prison warden's daughter Nok is on his trail, intent on proving both her worth and that of her family with his capture. Meanwhile, larger forces in Chattana are stirring, as not everyone is happy with the Governor's rule. 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. (Fantasy. 9-12)
Publishers Weekly
After nine-year-old orphan Pong escapes from Namwon Prison, where he was born, he finds himself on a collision course with the Governor, a powerful autocrat who has built a society for the privileged few. He is unexpectedly joined by Nok, the prison warden-s sheltered daughter who, in her quest to recapture Pong and gain favor with the Governor, is confronted with the unseemly truth of his regime. In the revolutionary underbelly of Chattana City, where the orb-lit glow of night seems more vibrant than day, Pong and Nok unite in peaceful protest against the Governor-s oppression. Soontornvat-s (The Blunders: A Counting Catastrophe!) twist on Les Misérables, set in an alternate Thai city, sends the young protagonists through lantern-soaked night markets; descriptions of food and place are particularly rich and evocative. Though Nok and Pong occupy the same spaces, there is relatively little interaction between them until two-thirds through the story. Instead, the plot-s emotional pull comes from their relationship with other characters, such as Pong-s connection with kindly monk Father Cham and Nok-s with her conflicted father. Soontornvat artfully builds up to a triumphant confrontation, weaving in important themes about oppression and civil disobedience along the way. Ages 8-12. (Mar.)
School Library Journal
Gr 4 Up-Years ago, the city of Chattana burned to the ground in a Great Fire and was thrown into chaos. The Governor restored peace to the city and powered it magically with orbs that gave light, heat, and power. Pong was born in Namwon Prison. Those lights represent freedom; but when he escapes from prison, he learns that the Governor controls who is in light and who is in darkness. In this society, everyone is beholden to the Governor and no one is truly free. Nok's father, born into society and now the prison warden, is disgraced when the 12-year-old Pong escapes. Unable to bear her father's shame, Nok embarks on a quest to find Pong and avenge her father's reputation. As she does, she learns that things are not always as fair and simple as she was taught in school. 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. VERDICT The original storyline and well-developed characters make this a standout novel. Highly recommended. Julie Overpeck, Gardner Park Elementary School, Gastonia, NC
Starred Review ALA Booklist
*Starred Review* A generation after the Great Fire razed the riverine city of Chattana, Pong was born in Namwon Prison. Now, he dreams of rising above his station and serving the Governor, who rescued civilization by outlawing fire and giving light to all through his unique magical power. After Pong learns that the Governor is, in fact, a fascist, he escapes Namwon, prompting the disgraced warden's privileged daughter, Nok, to hunt him. Meanwhile, the oppressed of Chattana organize a peaceful revolt, and as Pong's and Nok's fates intertwine, they each must face hard truths about the oppressive systems installed by the Governor. This "Thai-inspired . . . twist on Victor Hugo's Les Misérables" explores social justice through two young characters from contrary social classes, with chapters alternating between their respective points of view. It's a novel stand-alone, no less at 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.
Reviewing Agencies: - Find Other Reviewed Titles
Starred Review ALA Booklist (2/1/20)
Horn Book
Kirkus Reviews (2/1/20)
Newbery Honor (2/1/20)
Publishers Weekly (2/1/20)
School Library Journal (2/1/20)
Word Count: 74,227
Reading Level: 5.2
Interest Level: 3-6
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 5.2 / points: 11.0 / quiz: 508811 / grade: Middle Grades
Reading Counts!: reading level:4.4 / points:19.0 / quiz:Q78032
Lexile: 720L
Guided Reading Level: Z+
Fountas & Pinnell: Z+
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, Skin­and­Bones," 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 knobby­elbowed 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 scab­knuckled 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!"

Excerpted from A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

A 2021 Newbery Honor Book

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

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.

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