Each year, the Newbery awards committee recognizes the very best in American children’s literature. To receive one is a big deal. To get two is exceedingly rare. Texan Christina Soontornvat is the author of two 2021 Newbery Medal-winning books.
Soontornvat is the author of more than a dozen children’s books. Her Newbery-winning works are: “A Wish in the Dark” and “All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team.”
Soontornvat told Texas Standard that “A Wish in the Dark” is a fantasy novel that’s “a twist on Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables.'” “All Thirteen” is the true story of the rescue of a Thai soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018.
Soontornvat grew up in Weatherford, Texas, where her parents operated the first Asian restaurant in Parker County. Though she says she comes from a family of storytellers, Soontornvat began her career as a mechanical engineer, not a writer.
She says “Les Miserables” was an important book in her life.
“Growing up in this very conservative, small Texas town, it really opened my eyes to the way we treat each other in society,” Soontornvat said. “So I think that is one of the sparks that caused me to want to write this story, and explore these themes in a completely different world – in a made-up world.”
Soontornvat was in Thailand during the rescue of the boys’ soccer team. She says her view of the story from the Thai perspective, and later hearing it from a U.S. perspective, pointed out what people outside Thailand had missed about the rescue.
“It seemed like the focus was taken away from the Thai culture, from Thai people and the Thai rescuers who had been so much a part of the story in Thailand,” Soontornvat said. “So when I decided I wanted to write this for kids, I knew I wanted to pull the focus back more towards Thailand.”
When writing children’s books, Soontornvat says she is writing for herself: she was a reader as a child, and one who had not seen herself represented in literature.
“I did not read any books by an Asian-American author until I was out of high school,” she said.
Hate directed toward Asian Americans is on Soontornvat’s mind when she writes. She says attacks happening now, as well as negative experiences she had in small-town Texas, make her more determined to write about Asian characters and to dive deep into their stories.