A Wish in the Dark

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
A Wish in the Dark Book Poster Image
Dazzling, Thai-inspired riff on Les Mis has big heart.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Details of Thai life and culture infuse the story: the stinky but heavenly delicious durian fruit the prison guards eat; settings like the Buddhist temple and village where Pong finds refuge and the bustling, colorful Light Market; the way characters care for one another like family.

Positive Messages

What a government or culture deems right or the law is not always what is just; stand up for justice whenever and however you can. No person is born bad or good; it's up to each person to choose to do good as much as possible. Family isn't always related to you by blood; family is anyone who loves you and is there for you.

Positive Role Models

Pong deeply values fairness and freedom, but as an escaped prisoner, he has little of either. Nok's pursuit of Pong forces her to confront lies she'd been told about herself and about right and wrong. Other characters are loyal and ingenious, and care for those in need. Many characters are poor. Nok and her family represent wealthy, privileged class of Chattana. All characters are presumed Thai.  

Violence & Scariness

No graphic violence, but threats of violence. A fire destroys a residential building housing many poor people, including Pong. A key character dies while evacuating residents. The Governor, the ruler of Chattana, tries to hurl a ball of light at peaceful protestors. Pong almost drowns several times. Pong and Somkit find Nok with a gash in her temple that's bled down her face. It's implied that she was injured in a scuffle with police.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that 2021 Newbery Honor Book A Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat, is a reimagining of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Set in Chattana, a Thai-inspired land, it's the story of Pong, a boy who escapes from the prison where he was born and is relentlessly pursued as a fugitive by Nok, the prison warden's daughter. Pong helps inspire thousands to protest the unjust dictates of the Governor, the magical, power-obsessed leader of Chattana. As Pong and Nok's paths converge, they drift toward seeing each other's humanity, wrestling with the differences between laws and justice. There's no graphic violence, although a building fire kills a key character, the Governor threatens violence against peaceful protesters, and Pong nearly drowns in scenes that may be scary for sensitive readers. With compelling themes, sympathetic characters, and a fast-moving plot, this book has a lot of tween appeal.

User Reviews

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  • Kids say
Adult Written byStephanie Trautman January 18, 2022

Fantastic book about society and heart

This book is a fantastic read, but I cannot agree that 8 year-olds would understand its conflicts and themes. Seems more fit for around fifth grade and up. The... Continue reading

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What's the story?

A WISH IN THE DARK introduces readers to Pong and Somkit, best friends born in Namwon prison. In Thailand-like Chattana, children born behind bars stay there until they are 13, by decree of the Governor, Chattana's ruler. Pong, who longs for freedom, escapes when he's 9 years old. Years later, Nok, the daughter of the prison warden, recognizes Pong in a chance encounter in the village where Pong has taken refuge. She pursues him back to Chattana, where Pong reunites with his old friend Somkit. Somkit is part of a growing movement to demand a change to the Governor's unfair laws, and Pong gets involved. Nok hears of the impending march, and goes to warn the Governor, but he humiliates her and locks her up for disobedience. Disillusioned and scared, Nok finds herself in need of Pong's help. Will he help Nok, or will he leave his pursuer to her fate? And who can possibly stop the Governor from meeting the peaceful protestors with violence?

Is it any good?

This complex, gorgeously rendered tale will stay with the reader long after the story is finished. A bold reimagining of Victor Hugo's Les Mis, A Wish in the Dark echoes themes of love, compassion, and social justice, but Soontornvat's richly constructed settings rooted in Thai life and culture make up a fantastical and near-dystopian world that feels real and is full of unique and extraordinary characters. The writing is beautiful, evoking place and emotion with precise, immersive sensory details. The plot moves quickly, but clearly lays out the complex threads that weave together as the climax nears. It's a thought-provoking book that can help middle grade readers engage with topics like the prison-industrial complex, social class, and authoritarianism. Young readers will root for Pong, Somkit, and eventually even Nok as characters and readers travel together the never-ending road toward understanding self and society. A dazzling must-read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about social class in A Wish in the Dark. Who gets the brightest gold light and who gets only the dimmest violet light? Why? Why do Pong, Somkit, Ampai, and others think this is so unfair?

  • What else is unfair about life in Chattana, especially for people like Pong and Somkit? What laws or rules would you like to change to make things more fair?

  • Talk about the Governor. What kind of leader is he? What surprised you? Are there leaders like him in the real world? What do you think is the best system of government for a country?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories with Asian characters

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