Simon is having a great time at the museum with his parents. There are slippery, slidey floors! Pigeons flying around the reflecting pool! And cheesecake in the café! But they’re not really here for any of that. No, Simon has to look at art.
And more art.
So. Much. Art.
There’s so much art that soon Simon needs to take a break and finds somewhere to sit. From his bench, he begins to notice how many different people are visiting the museum and the many different ways they react to the art they see. Some people are alone. Some are in groups. Some people smile. Some shake their heads. Some even shed a tear.
And Simon is right in the center of it, watching until he’s inspired to give all the art another try. By the end of the day, he may even find a piece that can rival a slice of cheesecake!
A boy on the run. A girl determined to find him. A compelling fantasy looks at issues of privilege, protest, and justice.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 Misérablesis 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.
Why did you want to focus Simon At the Art Museum on the experience of going to an art museum as a kid? Many kids have this experience, with their families or a school group, and others don’t. Were you hoping to show readers the best parts about seeing art in person and how to make that fun for young kids?
I think so many of us have had the experience of visiting a museum, and there is so much to see, and you feel a pressure to not only see everything but to understand it all as well. It can be overwhelming for adults and even more so for kids! By having Simon watch the people around him, I wanted to focus on how art makes people feel, think, and remember. There is no one “right way” to visit a museum, and everyone finds their own way to connect with and appreciate the art within.
Let’s talk craft. What do you find different about writing chapter books like your Ice Princess series from writing other children’s books, if anything?
For me, the secret to writing for different age groups is to have a deep respect and understanding for the reader. I think a lot of adults look down on chapter books as being “easy,” fluffy, or light on content. But that’s not how a first or second grader feels. It’s true that a chapter book might not tackle issues as deep as those covered in a novel for older readers. But for a chapter book reader, their problems feel big and important. I think the best chapter books are ones that take those “small” concerns of young children seriously and give them the attention they deserve.
Your middle-grade novel A Wish in the Dark is a retelling of Les Misérables in a Thai-inspired fantasy world. Have you always loved Les Mis? How did you bring your own imagination to a retelling of such a well-known story?
I have loved Les Mis since my mom read me (okay, paraphrased for me) the novel when I was ten years old. It was one of the books that made the biggest impression on me, and showed me how literature can build empathy and change your worldview. But when I was deciding to rewrite the story for younger readers, I had a hard time wrapping my head around how to handle such a big, complex plotline.
I had been wanting to write a book set in Thailand for a while and when I began adapting the Les Mis storyline as a fantasy set in Thailand, it all fell into place. The themes of love and compassion reminded me so much of what I had learned from Buddhist family members. The book also examines the ways injustice and inequality perpetuate each other. I felt that it was appropriate to explore socioeconomic inequality in a Thai setting because the country has a long history of struggling with this issue, and today has one of the highest wealth gaps in the world. While I found inspiration from the original novel by Victor Hugo, I also felt there were places I needed to break away. In particular, I felt that it was important that the character of Nok (modeled after Javert in Les Mis) have a big change of heart, and come to a deeper understanding and empathy for those around her. And of course, this makes perfect because she is a child, and children have such a capacity for love and empathy. We should all be more like them.
What’s your favorite museum to visit? Does your answer differ depending on if you’re visiting with your own kids or not?
My very favorite art museum is the Kimbell in Fort Worth, Texas. I have been going to the museum since I was a little girl and it feels so familiar and welcoming. It’s not a gigantic museum, which is maybe why I always liked it, because it feels manageable. My kids love the outdoor reflecting pools. In fact, watching my kids race up and down along the pools at the Kimbell is where I got my inspiration for Simon at the Art Museum!
Are there any authors who have inspired your work, including authors outside of kidlit? What books do you think A Wish In the Dark is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit books?
The City of Ember series and The Giver were very much on my mind as I was writing this novel. They both tell stories in imagined worlds that make readers look more closely at the flaws and cracks in our own world. For far too long, middle-grade fantasy was always set in a white, western realm. But Erin Entrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Mañanaland are examples of books that show how expansive the fantasy genre is. I am so glad their books are out there and I hope we get more and more diverse fantasy to fill the shelves. And if I had to choose one middle-grade writer who I wished I could write like, it would have to be Ronald Smith. He is a master of language, and I don’t know any other author who creates a mood, an atmosphere like Ron does. You feel like you are living inside the pages of his books while you are reading them.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Oh, I like this question! I think it’s very interesting to know what doesn’t change from first to final draft. In my books, almost everything changes (sometimes very drastically) from the first draft. But there are always a few scenes that stay almost exactly like I drafted them. For A Wish in the Dark, the mango scene at the beginning of the book is very close to the ending. And there are two scenes that are written from an adult point of view: one from the POV of a police officer, and other from a customs official. I wrote these two scenes to show how oblivious some adults can be to the concerns of children! These scenes never changed. I guess it felt right to have those clueless adults in the story!
Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is the author of the fantasy middle grade series, The Changelings, and the early chapter book series, Diary of an Ice Princess. Her books published in 2020 include the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark, and All Thirteen, a nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue. In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.