This book guys! It is soooo good. A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is set in a magical Thailand and stars two children raised in a women’s prison and the daughter of the warden. There is so much complexity that I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will give you a rundown on the main players.
In Chattana the light shines on the worthy. The governor came from the dark to save a town burned to ashes by the great fire. He has the magical ability to create balls of light that also serve as electricity for powering the town. He is a demagogue who can do no wrong.
Pong and Somkit are two boys raised in the women’s prison guilty of being born to criminals. They are branded as such and will only have their brands crossed out (not removed) when they reach thirteen and are released. After a fateful meeting with the governor, Pong can no longer wait and rashly makes an escape that will force him to hide for the rest of his life.
Nok is the warden’s daughter and tries to be the perfect child. Light shines on the worthy and she *will* be worthy. She does not understand how a child as well cared for as Pong could shun what he has been given. She is determined to track down this boy who ignores the law.
Father Cham is a kind soul in a quiet monastery. He sees the good hearts of all and bestows small but meaningful blessings on the children of the village. “May you never stub your toe in the dark.” He provides an education for the unwanted children of Chattana.
Auntie Ampai is the heart of the broken East Side of Chattana. Light shines on the worthy and the east side only has the dimmest of light orbs. Ampai gives the east side faith and heart and shows the downtrodden that they have value and that honor can shine anywhere.
This book is sooo rich. It is diverse in its setting and rich in culture. At the same time it dives deep into philosophical questions of power-dynamics and what it means to be worthy. Every single character grows and changes throughout the book. There are no villains and heroes, simply ordinary people put into extraordinary positions.
I will happily hand this book off to my 3rd and 5th graders to read. One will likely learn about another culture and have her deep sense of social justice beaten up a bit. The other will dive deeper into the world and think about the book’s lessons for the rest of her life. There is really no mature content to worry about.