Monday, May 17, 2021

MMGM: A Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat

From the moment we meet Pong patiently waiting, listening, for the moment a ripe mango drops from a tree, A Wish in the Dark invites us deep into a rich, believable fantasy world with a truly engaging hero as our guide. Pong is quiet and observant with fierce loyalty to his friend and a strong sense of justice that keeps getting him into trouble. When he escapes the prison where he was born, we find out he is quick-thinking, ingenious and scrappy. He is a delight to travel with as he tries on his own to find freedom from an unfair society. Then he encounters Father Cham, a Buddhist monk, and, oh, my heart!

This is a story inspired by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and it is so brilliant (yes, this is a pun) in the way it plays with Hugo's characters and themes, translating them into a middle-grade plot about children who start off believing what society has labeled them. Both protagonists learn not only that they can choose to define themselves, but that they can choose to help each other, and that a lot of people all choosing to stand together can change society. All in a gorgeous Thai-inspired world with magic that cleverly illuminates (can't help myself) the social commentary: the brightest lights are reserved for the rich, and Soontornvat does so much with that simple metaphor.

Nok is harder to like, at first, and I didn't want the narration to keep switching into her point of view. But her rigid self-righteousness is a product of her upbringing, and she is trapped every bit as much as Pong by the lies the Governor tells. The Governor is a well-done villain, scary and believable in his reasonableness.

There are some great friendship and found-family moments, gentle and heartfelt wisdom, and a stirring Les Mis-worthy conclusion. This one was shortlisted for the 2020 Cybils, and deserves all the attention it's getting. (Soontornvat won a Cybil for her non-fiction book about the Thai cave rescue, which I really want to read!)

As sweet and juicy as a perfectly ripe mango! For more delicious middle-grade reads, see what everybody is reviewing at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.


  1. I'm glad you finally found us on MMGM. I get my days mixed up all the time. Thanks for the compelling review of this sweet sounding story. I remember hearing the title but never knew what it was about. I've added it to my summer reading list.

  2. Kim, you had me at the Les Mis connection, but the fact that it's set in Thailand, even better! I have to read this one. Les Mis is one of my favorite stories, even though I haven't been brave enough to tackle the whole novel yet.

  3. I just loved this book when I read it, especially the Les Mis connection (another book I loved). Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.

  4. Les Mis for middle graders. That's quite a concept. Thanks for the heads up on this one. I hadn't heard of it.

  5. Enjoyed your review. I loved this book and have read it twice! Gifted it to others at Christmas. So well done. And yes, the Les Mis connection is definitely there. One of my favorite musicals/movies.

  6. Ooh, inspired by Les Miserables! I will have to check this out. Thanks for sharing...