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. Soontornvat has a BS in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in science education and spent a decade working in the science museum field. She now lives in Austin, Tex., with her husband and two children. Last week, she received four ALA and affiliated honors during the Youth Media Awards for her two 2020 middle-grade books, the nonfiction All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team (one of Shelf Awareness's Best Books of 2020) and the middle-grade fantasy A Wish in the Dark, both published by Candlewick Press.
All Thirteen had already received an NCTE Orbis Pictus Award Honor in November. And then last week, it received three more honors: the Sibert, the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction and the Newbery. And your other 2020 middle-grade book, A Wish in the Dark, also received a Newbery Honor! So, uh, how you feeling? Are you worried no one is ever going to be able to see the cover of All Thirteen with all those stickers on it?
I am still walking around like a stunned zombie. Will it ever sink in and feel real? I don't know--I'm not there yet! And oh my goodness, the stickers! Isn't it hilarious that deep down all of us grownups are actually just huge children? My first question for my publicist was to ask if they would be sending me my own sheet of silver stickers.
I have to ask: Did the Newbery committee call you just the once? Or did you get two calls?
They called me twice! You could have knocked me over with a feather. Dr. Jonda C. McNair, the Committee Chair, told me it was her idea to have them make two separate phone calls. And let me tell you, I will never forget either one.
All Thirteen is such an absorbing read--it's one of those incredible nonfiction titles that gives the reader so much information in totally accessible ways. You also did a ton of research for this book. Does it feel affirming to see it get so much love?
It is overwhelmingly wonderful.
The research was definitely more work than I have ever put into any other book. I felt such a big responsibility to faithfully tell the stories of the many people who worked so hard on the rescue. So, yes, it is incredibly rewarding to have that work recognized and to know that this means even more readers are going to learn about these incredible heroes.
Is there more you wish you could have added to the book? Any particularly interesting parts of the story you simply didn't have space for?
Well, there were so many more local people who selflessly volunteered their time--literally thousands of people--whose stories I wasn't able to include. And there were several photos that didn't make it into the final version because we were running out of space. Some photos I'm thinking of in particular show volunteers sprawled out on the ground asleep, or lying across empty scuba air canisters, anywhere they can find a spot in this crowded parking lot. Everyone had worked so incredibly hard and had gone without sleep for so long that as soon as they got one moment to rest, they passed out wherever they could!
Will you do more nonfiction in the future?
I do love writing nonfiction and I have more nonfiction picture books coming out in the next two years: To Change a Planet, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell, and A Life of Service: The Story of Tammy Duckworth, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. Both of these books are also personally very meaningful to me, which I think is so important when you are writing nonfiction. I think that if you want others to feel moved and inspired by your subject matter, you have to feel that in your own heart first.
A Wish in the Dark, a fantasy loosely based on Les Misérables, is totally different from All Thirteen. How does it feel to have such different works honored with the same award?
When Dr. McNair was telling me about my second Honor, I just kept thinking how two books about Thailand were being recognized in the same year, and how momentous that was. Two very different books, too! Growing up, I never read books that showed me or my heritage. It is amazing to know that Thai readers will see themselves and all readers will be able to see us more fully. It's incredible.
There is a moment at the end of A Wish in the Dark--on the bridge--when I got chills and then started crying. Do you think Wish has something special to add to the children's literature discourse at this moment in time?
Ah, that makes me so happy to hear! That experience of being so immersed in a story that you have a visceral, emotional reaction--that is my favorite part of being a reader and it is what I strive to create as a writer. With A Wish in the Dark, I wanted readers to come away asking questions: What do we want our society to be like? Who gets to decide what's right and wrong? What is our role in all of it, and how can we shine a light for others? I wanted readers to go through that emotional journey with Pong and Nok because I think when you get to that place of being surprised and feeling vulnerable, that is when you are open to seeing things in entirely new ways. That's when the good stuff happens. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness