Tell us about the main characters: Pong, Nok, and Somkit.
When we meet Pong and Somkit, they are nine-year-old orphaned boys who are living in the prison where they were born. Pong is a quiet boy with a special gift – a sort of superpower. He pays attention to things. That might seem like a small thing, but it enables him to see things other people miss – including magic. I gave Pong this quality because it’s something I wish I were better at. I’m always working on trying to live in the present and not let my mind wander.
Somkit is the smallest boy at the prison (and the most picked on). He’s very smart and has a real knack for inventing things (my background is in mechanical engineering, and I loved creating a character who is a budding engineer). He’s also a wise-cracking funny guy, who is always teasing Pong. The two boys are more like brothers, really. Their friendship is heavily based on my dad’s friendships with the men he grew up with in Thailand. They all had a really strong bond that was shaped by their tough childhoods, and having to grow up a little too fast.
All the children in the prison are reminded often that they won’t grow up to be much, and in fact they will probably just end up right back in jail. It’s a desolate place to be a child – especially for Pong, whose one true wish is to help make the world a better place. One day Pong gets his chance to escape, and leaves his best friend and his past behind forever. Or so he thinks (bum, bum, bum!).
Nok is the prison warden’s perfect daughter, and she is determined to hunt Pong down and restore her family’s good name. She’s driven by a shameful secret in her past, and she wants to prove to her family that she’s worthy of their love. When we meet Nok she has lived a very privileged life, and until now she’s never confronted her privilege or questioned the system of oppression that rules their city. Of all the characters she is the one who has the most changing to do, and she is the character who I identify with the most.
You have mentioned that Chattana is based on the city of Bangkok, Thailand. Can you tell us about the fantastical elements infused into Chattana, as well as the real ones?
Bangkok, like many cities and towns in Southeast Asia, is a river city. It has been called the “Venice of the East”, and when my dad was a boy it was even more prominent in daily life than it is now. People built their homes and businesses along the river. As a boy, my dad fished and swam there. He would hitch rides on the back of water taxis. His parents owned a cargo boat that would take goods up and down and back up the river again. So in his stories that he would tell me, the river was always important.
When I wrote A Wish in the Dark, I wanted to emphasize the river even more and so the city of Chattana has no roads at all, and everyone gets around by boat. A river is a wonderful element to have in a story because it’s a force of nature that imposes its will on the characters whether they like it or not. They either have to flow with the current, or fight the current. They can get trapped on one side or the other. A river is a dangerous thing (especially for Pong, who can’t swim), but also full of life. And of course, it’s so beautiful. One of my earliest memories is being in a boat at night on the river in Thailand and being mesmerized by the reflections of all the lights in the water. That moment felt magical and it’s one of the things that inspired me to make the lights of Chattana (literally) powered by magic.
What was your favorite scene to write? Which one was the hardest?
For almost the entire book, the chapters switch back and forth between Pong and Nok’s points of view. But there are two chapters that are written from the point of view of very minor adult characters, and I had a ton of fun with those! These adults underestimate the kids (typical for adults!) and have zero clue about all the complex things going on in their lives. The adults are the complete opposite of Pong – they think they know everything, but because they don’t pay attention they are missing it all. Those scenes were so fun to write.
The hardest scene to write was the ending, which stretches over several chapters. This is where all the separate threads of the story have to come together and tie up. The reader has to learn some surprising information and mysteries have to finally get solved. I also wanted the reader to absolutely burn through the pages and not be able to stop until they finished. So that scene had a lot of heavy lifting to do! It took a lot of rewrites, but I’m happy with the way it finally turned out.
Once you have finished A Wish in the Dark, do you have recommendations for what to read next?
If you’d like another twist on an old “classic” I highly recommend Hena Khan’s More to the Story, which is a modern retelling of Little Women starring four awesome Pakistani American sisters. If you want to read about more kids having incredible adventures across the world, City Spies by James Ponti is so much fun. An MG fantasy that also digs into important social issues that I am absolutely loving right now is Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
And later this year, my middle grade nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen will be released. I didn’t originally plan to have two books set in Thailand come out in the same year, but it is a total thrill. I traveled back to Thailand to conduct in person interviews for All Thirteen, with my dad by my side to help me with research and translation. So in a way, I also got to work with my dad on two books in the same year, which has been such a joy.
Christina Soontornvat is the author of several books for young readers, including The Blunders, illustrated by Colin Jack, the middle-grade fantasy novel A Wish in the Dark, and the nonfiction All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. She holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in science education. Christina Soontornvat lives with her family in Austin, Texas.