A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  Fantasy, Privilege, Oppression, Poverty, Justice, Friendship, Courage, Self-discovery

Book Synopsis:

After a Great Fire destroys the city of Chattana, a man appears before the starving people and offers to bring peace and order to the city. He is called the Governor and he magically lights the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights across the river represent freedom and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them in the city. But when Pong escapes from the prison, he realizes that the world outside is just as unfair as the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb lights, 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.

Why I like this book:

A Wish in the Dark is a timeless Asian fantasy that is exquisitely penned by Christina Soontornvat.  Her storytelling and literary style elevate readers’ sense of wonder. The magical Thai setting, well-crafted characters, riveting plot and the gorgeous imagery are so beautifully intertwined that they create an electrifying experience.

At the beginning of the story, the main characters Pong, Somkit and Nok, are 10 years old. As the story unfolds readers will experience their character growth to age 13, as they journey towards self-discovery, which is different for each. Pong is an observer, who has become restless in the confines of a prison. He wants his freedom. Pong looks out for his best friend, Somkit, a small boy who has health issues. When Pong flees, he feels guilt over leaving his defenseless friend behind. The bond between the boys is so natural that they feel like brothers. Nok is the warden’s daughter. She lives a privileged life and is brainwashed by the Governor’s magic and believes his teachings are sacred. Pong and Nok are complete opposites and their journey is fraught with tension and excitement.

This stand-alone novel deals with many social justice issues: the inequality among classes, poverty, oppression, greed, corruption and power. In this novel, power is used by the Governor to control and manipulate those he claims to care about. In Father Cham, a monk, and Ampai, a woman living among the poorest citizens, power is used in loving kindness for the good of all people.  It is a particularly relevant discussion point for students in classrooms.

Verdict: This book is a gem. It may appear to be dark, but don’t let that fool you. Because at its center, there is heart and light.

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 is the author of engaging picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books for children, including the fantasy series, The Changelings, and the upcoming nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen. She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in an exchange for a review.

Taking Cover by Nioucha Homayoonfar

Taking Cover: One Girl’s Story of Growing Up During the Iranian Revolution

Nioucha Homayoonfar, Author

National Geographic Children’s Books, YA Nonfiction, Jan. 8, 2019

Suitable for Ages:  12 and up

Themes: Growing up during the Iranian revolution, Oppression, Family relationships, Friendships

Synopsis: Nioucha Homayoonfar is a French-Iranian American girl who moves to Tehran, Iran, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1976, at just five years old.  Nioucha must adjust to living in a new country, learning a new language, starting a new school, and making new friends. But none of that compares to the change Nioucha experiences during and after the revolution of 1979.

Religion classes became mandatory at school and the boys are separated from the girls. Nioucha has to cover her head and wear robes so that none of her skin shows. She has friends who parents are executed, and her own cousin is captured and tortured after he is caught trying to leave Iran.

And yet in the midst of so much change, Nioucha is still just a girl who’s trying to figure out her place in the world. She spends happy times with her family. She listens to forbidden music and idolizes pop stars, but has to do it carefully because Western music is banned. She gets her legs waxed and has her first boyfriend, but they cannot be seen in public together. They keep their relationship a secret. Will Nioucha ever get used to this new way of life?

Why I like this book:

Nioucha’s story immediately captivated me because I had a college friend who married an Iranian and moved to Tehran in the mid-70s. And I knew a woman whose father was a senior advisor to the Shah and fortunately lived in the Washington D.C. when the exile occurred. I was eager to learn more because so little has been written about the culture, the  oppression of women and Iranian life.  So I enjoyed this personal and moving true story about a 12-year-old girl navigating a very tense and complex time in Iran’s revolutionary history. One moment she is living in a very modern Iran where women enjoy a lot of freedom. When the Shah and his family are driven into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran as its ruler. The changes are dramatic and scary at times, particularly when Iran and Iraq go to war and there are bombings in her neighborhood.

The first chapter is compelling and draws the readers to the everyday dangers of living in Iran after the revolution began. Smart opening!  “I knew I was in trouble when the white jeep made a U-turn. Driven by the Zeinab Sisters (or the Black Crows, as I called them), it raced toward me and screeched to a stop.”  The stage is set for readers when Nioucha is kidnapped by the Moral Police, thus allowing the author to back track and share vivid memories of her childhood, family life, food, customs, and traditions. She also includes eight photographs in the center of the book about her family, friends and her neighborhood.

Readers will enjoy Nioucha’s spunk and inner rebellion. Like many teens she takes risks. She dislikes the religion class and tells the strict teacher that she is Christian and not Muslim. She manages to get out of attending class for quite a while before she is caught. She also has a secret boyfriend, which could cause her serious trouble if she gets caught. There is humor in her behavior as she tries to figure out who she is.

This book was published in time for the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. It is an extraordinary story that breathes life into history and makes it come alive for readers. There are so many topics to explore in this memoir: revolution, oppression, tolerance, religion and history. Make sure you check out the foreword by Iranian-born author Firoozeh Dumas, who talks about pre-revolutionary Iran where women were making advancements in fields and where the population was secular and co-existing peacefully. At the end there is a map of Iran and the surrounding area and a time line of Iranian history.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.