Christina Soontornvat’s “A Wish in the Dark,” a fantasy novel that examines issues of privilege, protest and justice, has been named the 2023 Alexandria Award winner by the Center for Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame.
The Alexandria Award recognizes a middle grade or young adult book that advances Gospel values through the positive actions and portrayals of tenacious adolescents. It is named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, an adolescent Christian of the fourth century who was an eager student and a famed orator.
“A Wish in the Dark” tells the story of Pong, a child born and raised in a prison, and Nok, the prison warden’s daughter who is determined to track down Pong after his escape. In this Thai-inspired twist on “Les Misérables,” both children come to question the truths they thought they knew — about their pasts, their city, each other and what they’ve always known to be right and wrong.
“This book has been on the award committee’s radar since the inception of this project because it fits so well with our goals and criteria,” said Michael Macaluso, the founder of the award and an associate teaching professor in the Center for Literacy Education and the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Teaching Fellows program. “Covering topics such as the effects of institutional poverty and unjust incarceration, the relationship between parents and children, and, of course, the role of faith in our lives, this story is filled with opportunities for rich classroom discussion. We look forward to seeing this book taken up more deliberately in classrooms across the country.”
The Center for Literacy Education, which is housed in Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, created the award to respond to the need for high-quality, highly engaging contemporary books in classrooms and the desire of Catholic school teachers to teach classroom books — classic or contemporary — through a lens of faith and Catholic social teaching.
“I was so thrilled to receive the news that ‘A Wish in the Dark’ was selected for the Alexandria Award, and then was even more honored when I read the criteria used to select books,” Soontornvat said. “All the time I was writing this novel, I kept one question at the top of my mind: What would the world be like if we all gave everyone compassion, equally and freely? It makes me so happy that this was one of the themes that the committee recognized, and it’s a true honor to have the book acknowledged in this way.”
Copies of the book will be given to schools across the country, including local schools in South Bend, Indiana, and will be accompanied by a curriculum insert designed by an expert teacher offering a sample lesson plan — including suggested classroom learning goals, activities and discussion guides for thinking about the book through a lens of faith and Catholic social teaching.
“‘A Wish in the Dark’ was recommended to me for the Alexandria Award by one of my middle school son’s friends who is a voracious reader,” said Kate Schuenke-Lucien, the director of the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child, Haiti, and a member of the Alexandria Award committee. “He talked about the characters’ fight for justice and how Soontornvat used the concepts of light and darkness to illustrate the struggles of Chattana’s residents between good and evil. ‘A Wish in the Dark’ takes complicated ethical issues and brings them to life in a way that immerses and engages young readers.”
St. Catherine is the patron of students, librarians and educators, and the award commemorates her youth, bravery, tenacity, enthusiasm for education and her home in Alexandria — the famed location of the Great Library. St. Catherine boldly defended the faith and protested injustices of her time, including the persecution of Christians. Her efforts led to the conversion of hundreds of people before she was martyred at 18.
Previous winners of the Alexandria Award are “When Stars Are Scattered” by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson, and “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman.
Classroom copies of “A Wish in the Dark” can be requested using this link while supplies last.