59 pages • 1 hour readChristina Soontornvat
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A Wish in the Dark is a 2020 middle-grade fantasy novel by children’s author Christina Soontornvat. A Wish in the Dark was named a 2021 Newbery Honor book and awarded Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The School Library Journal. Soontornvat has published other award-winning children’s books, most notably her 2021 novel All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team.
Inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, A Wish in the Dark tells the story of Pong and Nok, two 13-year-olds who reside in Chattana under the control of the oppressive Governor. After Pong escapes from Namwon Prison, he is desperate to leave the darkness and injustice of his past behind; Nok, driven by the need to prove her worth to her family, relentlessly pursues him. Both children encounter hard truths about redemption, justice, and freedom and learn what it means to shine a light.
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This guide references the 2020 Candlewick Press first edition.
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In the fantasy land of Chattana, the dictator-like Governor rules with the authority of his light-giving abilities, which he uses to create colored light orbs that power every amenity in Chattana. The Governor’s laws are absolute, harshly punishing those convicted of wrongdoing—and even those who aren’t.
Nine-year-old Pong is no stranger to the world’s injustice. Held at Namwon Prison for the simple crime of being born to an inmate mother, Pong endures the abuse of his fellow child inmates and the indifference of the guards. Pong dreams of the day he’ll be released from Namwon and imagines that the lights of Chattana represent a better, fairer world that awaits him. Pong’s hopes are shattered when he meets the Governor himself; during this encounter, the Governor hisses ominous words in the impressionable Pong’s ear: “Those who are born in darkness always return” (28). Utterly disillusioned, Pong convinces himself that the darkness is inescapable—both in the world and within himself.
Driven by desperation, Pong escapes from Namwon and enters the Buddhist temple of Wat Singh in the nearby rural village of Tanaburi. Pong realizes that he’ll be a fugitive for life; he is marked by a permanent prison tattoo, one shared by every other prisoner of Chattana, that cannot be removed by any power except the Governor’s. At Wat Singh, Pong meets the head monk, Father Cham. Father Cham shows compassion to a starving Pong and gifts him several white blessing cords to hide his tattoo. Pong is ashamed of his past and struggles to feel deserving of the monk’s kindness.
Pong remains at Wat Singh under the mentorship of Father Cham for the next four years. As a 13-year-old, Pong learns that Father Cham possesses a unique ability: he can make his wishes come true, a power that he uses to bestow small blessings upon those around him. Father Cham explains that he once thought his wishes could change the world, but after a certain incident, he learned to use his power sparingly.
Meanwhile, Nok Sivapan, the daughter of the former Namwon Prison warden, arrives in Tanaburi with her family. Unlike Pong, Nok never had to struggle against the forces of an unjust world, and she trusts the law implicitly. Nok discovers that her parents plan to leave her in Tanaburi due to vicious gossip about her true parentage. When Nok recognizes Pong in Tanaburi, she decides to capture him to prove her worth to her parents.
After Nok discovers his identity, Pong must leave Tanaburi quickly—but not before he attends the deathbed of Father Cham, who has fallen suddenly ill. Father Cham blesses Pong with a special red and gold braided cord and wishes that Pong “will find what he’s looking for” (111). Pong escapes Nok and boards a boat heading back for Chattana, but Nok surreptitiously tracks him back to the city.
In Chattana, Pong reunites with Somkit, his childhood friend from Namwon. Somkit introduces Pong to Ampai, the leader of an underground revolutionary network. Ampai is fiercely optimistic about their ability to challenge the societal structures that keep the lower classes of Chattana oppressed under the Governor’s rule. Through Ampai, Pong learns to challenge his beliefs about the inescapability of darkness and his own irredeemable nature. Ampai plans a protest against the Governor the following week, after discovering that Somkit learned how to create gold light orbs. This is a skill thought to be achievable only by the Governor; Somkit’s breakthrough will convince people that they don’t need the Governor. Pong agrees to help Ampai and the revolution although he secretly feels that it’s pointless. When Pong learns that Nok tracked him back to Chattana, Pong attempts to escape, but he and Somkit are captured by the police and thrown in a holding cell.
Meanwhile, Nok warns the Governor of Ampai’s planned protest and is shocked when she realizes that the Governor intends to quell the protest through illicit means. The Governor reveals Nok’s true parentage: She was born to a prisoner of Namwon with whom her father had an affair, and Nok escaped imprisonment with the other Namwon children only because her father adopted her into the Sivapan family. Nok is imprisoned in the same holding cells Pong and Somkit are taken to; Pong recognizes her but observes utter defeat in her posture. Moved to pity for his former enemy, Pong helps Nok escape with him and Somkit.
Rocked by the revelations about her identity and by Pong’s unexpected actions, Nok disappears following the escape. After some reflection, she realizes laws and justice do not necessarily align with one another, and the criminals created by the system are still people with good hearts. With this newfound perspective, Nok hurries to warn the protestors of the Governor’s plot to destroy them.
Pong and Somkit learn that Ampai perished in a fire, selflessly giving her life to rescue others. Although the other members of the revolution want to give up the march since Ampai cannot lead them, Pong convinces them to persist. Pong knows that he cannot stand with them during the march; his risk of being recognized as a fugitive and apprehended is too high. After experiencing a vision of Father Cham, Pong learns an important truth: The Governor’s power comes from a wish Father Cham once bestowed upon him. Pong realizes that darkness cannot be escaped; it can only be faced. Armed with a renewed belief in his ability to create positive change, Pong returns to the protest and usurps the Governor’s light-generating power with the help of the other citizens of Chattana. Freed from the Governor’s influence, Pong, Somkit, Nok, and the rest of Chattana rebuild in the peaceful but uncertain aftermath of these events.
By Christina Soontornvat