In an extremely rare feat, Christina Soontornvat received two Newbery Honors in 2021 for two radically different books: A wish in the darkhis Thai-inspired fantasy version of Victor Hugo Wretched; and All thirteen, about the daring, real-life rescue of a Thai boys’ football team trapped underground and underwater. His next books are equally diverse in content and form. In The last cartographer (Candlewick, April), a mid-level novel, Soontornvat returns to fantasy with the story of Sai, an adventurous adventurer determined to carve her own path in her world. Change a planet (Scholastic, August), an illustrated picture book by Rahele Jomepour Bell, is a clarion call to protect the Earth from impending doom.
Soontornvat is a Gemini, the most mutable sign of the western zodiac. Personality traits associated with the sign include curiosity and desire and the ability to juggle a variety of passions and interests. “When I was younger,” she recalled, “I used to read descriptions of Geminis, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is such a downfall, because I’ll never get good at one thing. But now that I’m older, it’s an advantage. I approach a lot of different things and I have a lot of different influences. It helps me to be creative and that’s what I need for my job.
As disparate as his projects seem, a common philosophy underlies them all. “The thread that ties them together is this idea of, what can a person do?” said Soontornvat. “The world is big, the problems are big. For children, it can feel like, “I’m so small. I don’t matter. I write to get by to remind myself that every person matters.
This theme is evident in Change a planet. Soontornvat’s text is sparse and poetic, totaling just 75 words. “Something that seems tiny — like a carbon molecule or a person — when you put a lot of them together, it has a really big impact,” she says. “I wrote Change a planet at a time when I was discouraged by this biggest problem facing our species. But I realized by working together and saying, “This is important. We want to act, ‘that we could solve a problem in this way.
The last cartographer‘s Sai is also a person who pushes boundaries and imagines something new. The book was inspired by Soontornvat’s love of maps. A map is exciting, she says, because it’s “about exploring, discovering, moving forward and finding something new. There’s a lot of responsibility there. When you find something, it changes.
As A wish in the dark, The last cartographer is also an adventure fantasy steeped in Thailand-specific tropes drawn from Soontornvat’s Thai heritage. She has spoken critically about the fantasy genre’s global Eurocentrism, most notably in a 2018 blog post for the Web Nerds of Color community. “I had read books about British imperialism and the ‘Age of Discovery’, in which all the things that European empires would have discovered had been discovered before,” she says. TP.
Soontornvat loves building the world in a new, non-derivative way. “Building the world down to the details of what people eat, what their clothes look like, what their own legends and mythologies are, that’s what’s fun,” she says. “The best way to do that is to bring the world into the story.”
The last cartographer examine personal stories, make mistakes and move on. “A big part of the world-building was that everyone wears a visible piece of jewelry that shows how illustrious or humble their past was – a visual marker of whether you have a worthy past or not,” Soontornvat explains. “The whole society revolves around this, and it’s very closely related to my theme.”
Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small town in Texas. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in science education before embarking on a career in the field of science museums, where she designed programs and exhibitions. She continues to be passionate about STEM, which informs her work in both obvious and less obvious ways. “The most important lesson I learned in this job is that if you want someone to learn something, you have to make them feel something,” she says. “You can’t throw facts at people and expect them to care. Change a planet is full of scientific information from primary sources such as the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports, but basically it’s emotional. It’s a moving call to action.
Soontornvat still lives in Texas; she is now in Austin with her partner, two young children and a cat. She says her ideas come from many sources: her Thai heritage, science, theatre, her home country. “When I was younger, so many people I knew were passionate about one thing and put all their energy into it,” she recalls. “I was always bouncing back. I would go into history, then I would change and go into science for a while. And then I would change and I would like to read all the works of Ernest Hemingway.
She also considers it essential to spend time outdoors, to be with the plants. She finds the experience invigorating. “The longer I go without doing this, the more I feel like I’m atrophying,” she says. “I take a lot of strength from being outside.”
This fall, Soontornvat has a second pair of books coming out in two other genres new to it: A life of service (Candlewick), an illustrated biography of Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; and The test (Graphix), a graphic novel memoir, illustrated by Joanna Cacao. Soontornvat found writing the biography a challenge. To prepare, she read Every day is a gift, Duckworth’s memoirs, and most books about her. “She’s such a wonderful speaker and writer, and I got the eloquence out of her own words,” says Soontornvat. “She is so direct. There is nothing artisanal, nothing hypocritical about her.
The picture book has the same candid tone and showcases Duckworth’s many accomplishments in the military and government due to his fiery nature and tireless determination. “She just has this incredible inner strength and is driven by a desire to serve her country and give back to others,” Soontornvat says. “That motivation allowed him to do the most incredible things.”
Soontornvat resisted writing about herself for a long time, but turned inward for The test. Her daughters, ages 9 and 11, are obsessed with graphic novels, and they were the ones who convinced her to tell her own story as a teenager. The book talks about Soontornvat; her best friend Megan, who is Iranian-American; and cheerleading tryouts at their rural Texas college. “I have complicated opinions about what I went through as the only Asian American child in this small town,” she says. “I have painful memories. I also met the most incredible people in this small town. It’s not a simple story, but given the way conversations are going in this country, we need more complicated stories like that.
Earning two Newbery Honors elevated Soontornvat’s professional reputation, but his writing process didn’t change one bit. “Writing is such a cool job to do, because it’s not like playing sports, where you’re going to peak and then you’ll never be that good again,” she says. “I look up to the authors who came before me, like Nikki Grimes, Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith. When I look at them, I think, oh, I want to be like them. I just try to keep learning and m improve in this area of writing.
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey..
A version of this article originally appeared in the 02/21/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Genre Master