All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, 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.
Beautiful imagery and compelling characters bring the world of Chattana into clear focus. While the story focuses on Pong, the supporting characters add interest and depth. Pong, who was born and raised in prison, believes that his only chance of living a happy life is to flee Chattana. With the help of Father Cham, Pong realizes that he cannot run from his problems. Father Cham explains, “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” Because of Father Cham’s wise words, Pong has the strength to stand up for justice and change his world for the better.
A Wish in the Dark shines a light on social issues such as protest, privilege, and justice. However, the book does not preach a particular doctrine. Instead, Pong’s experiences lead him to understand that one mistake or misfortune does not define a person. For example, Pong sees firsthand how people who have been in prison face discrimination. Once they are released, they find it difficult to find jobs and provide for their families. Because Father Cham lives a life dedicated to helping the poor, Pong learns compassion for those who are poor and downtrodden. Father Cham teaches that “desperate people deserve our compassion, not our judgment.”
As a Newbery Honor Book, A Wish in the Dark will leave readers thinking about many of society’s problems. While the story shows the glaring disparities between the wealthy and the poor, it does not give unrealistic solutions. Instead, readers see how “wealth can be as much a curse as a blessing and no guarantee of happiness.” The conclusion doesn’t end with a perfect happy-ever-after, but instead shows that there is hope for the people of Chattana. The story also leaves readers with this question: “Which is better: being safe or having freedom?”
- While in prison, two girls beat up Somkit because he won’t give them a mango. Later, “Somkit touched his bruised cheek and winced.”
- When the mean girls throw Somkit’s food on the ground, Pong “stomped on her bare foot.”
- Nok, Somkit, and Pong are held captive in a stable. When the guards catch them trying to escape, Nok, “brought the end of it [her staff] down hard on the stable floor. . . The ground shook like an earthquake. . . All four guards lay on their backs on the floor, twitching like fish in the bottom of a boat.” All three run.
- When a group of over 1,000 peacefully march over a bridge, the Governor orders his men to arrest everyone. “In the Governor’s right palm, a huge ball of light began to swirl, as blindingly bright as the center of a star. It swelled, bigger and bigger. People in the crowd cried out. . .The Governor reared his arm back, as if getting ready to hurl the enormous mass of light forward . . . Pong knew what to do . . . Pong seized the Governor’s wrist and held on. . . As soon as he grabbed the Governor’s wrist, the raw light swirling in the Governor’s right hand went out.”
- Angry, the Governor “growled like a beast and raised his other fist to strike Pong. As he brought it down, a streak of jet black shot out from the crowd. Nok flew to Pong’s side and crossed her forearms in front of her, blocking the Governor’s fist.” The Governor flees. The protest and the supernatural events (see below) are described over 14 pages.
- The Governor grabs Pong. “Two hands gripped his shoulders. The last thing Pong saw was the rage in the Governor’s eyes as he yanked Pong toward him, and then hurled him over the side of the bridge.” Someone jumps in after Pong and saves him.
Drugs and Alcohol
- A girl calls her brother a dummy.
- Somkit tells Pong, “Don’t be a jerk.”
- A man calls a group of kids “lazy brats.”
- Crap is used three times. For example, Somkit calls a boat “a piece of crap.”
- Heck is used five times.
- Chattana used to have vendors who “sold all manner of magical treats: pears that made you fall in love, cakes frosted with good luck, even a rare fruit shaped like a sleeping baby that would let you live for one thousand and three years if you ate a single bite.”
- The governor is the only one who can create light that powers the city.
- Pong is thrown into the river and is drowning when he has a vision. Then, “The white wispy shape formed the body of a man. . . It was Father Cham. . .Pong turned to follow Father Cham’s gaze and saw a pulsing orange glow hovering on the northern horizon. He knew he was seeing another vision from the past: The Great Fire.” In the vision, Father Cham imparts wisdom to Pong. The vision is described over seven pages.
- During the protest, Pong grabs the Governor’s wrist and “the Gold light flowed into his palm, down his left wrist and into his arm . . . A liquid Gold light flowed, trapped beneath Pong’s skin . . . The lines of light streamed out of his prison mark.”
- Trying to help his friend, Somkit grabs Pong. “Light flowed from Pong into Somkit’s hand. The same streams of Gold light poured form Somkit’s crossed-out tattoo.”
- Somkit, Nok, and Pong were “glowing like human lanterns on the dark bridge.” The people come forward and hold hands. “Each person felt the surge of light flow through them and burst out into the darkness.” By the next morning, everyone’s light had disappeared.
- Father Cham, a monk, puts bracelets around Pong’s wrist. As he does, he gives blessings such as, “May you never get food poisoning from a raw chicken” and, “May wasps never sting the palms of your hands or the bottoms of your feet.”
- Father Cham blesses a baby and says, “may you walk in peace wherever you are in the world.”
- When Father Cham dies, a monk tells Pong, “You know that Father Cham is merely leaving this life behind and going on to the next.”
- After Pong leaves Somkit, “not a day had passed at the temple that Pong hadn’t prayed for his friend and wished he could know what he was doing.”