In an extremely rare feat, Christina Soontornvat was awarded two Newbery Honors in 2021 for two dramatically different books: A Wish in the Dark, her Thai-inspired fantastical twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; and All Thirteen, about the daring, real-life rescue of a Thai boys’ soccer team trapped underground and underwater. Her forthcoming books are just as diverse in content and form. In The Last Mapmaker (Candlewick, Apr.), a middle grade novel, Soontornvat returns to fantasy with the story of Sai, a swashbuckling adventurer determined to chart her own way in her world. To Change a Planet (Scholastic, Aug.), a picture book illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell, is a clarion call to protect the Earth to stave off fast-approaching disaster.
Soontornvat is a Gemini, the most mutable sign of the Western zodiac. The personality traits associated with the sign include curiosity and the desire and ability to juggle a variety of passions and interests. “When I was younger,” she recalls, “I’d read descriptions of Geminis, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s such a downfall, because I’m never going to get good at one thing.’ But now that I’m older, it’s been a benefit. I get into lots of different things, and have lots of different influences. It helps me to be creative and that’s what I need for my work.”
As disparate as her projects seem, a common ethos undergirds them all. “The thread that ties them together is this idea of, what can one person do?” Soontornvat says. “The world is big, the problems are big. For kids, it can feel like, ‘I’m just so small. I don’t matter.’ I write my way out of that to remind myself that each person does matter.”
This theme is evident in To Change a Planet. Soontornvat’s text is sparse and poetic, totaling to just 75 words. “Something that seems tiny—like a carbon molecule, or one person—when you put lots of them together, it makes a really big impact,” she says. “I wrote To Change a Planet during a time when I was discouraged about this biggest problem that our species faces. But I realized by working together and saying, ‘This is important. We want to take action,’ that we could solve a problem this way.”
The Last Mapmaker’s Sai is also just one person who pushes boundaries and imagines something new. The book was inspired by Soontornvat’s love of maps. A map is thrilling, she says, because it’s “about exploring, discovering, and going forth and finding something new. There’s a lot of responsibility in that. When you find something, it changes.”
Like A Wish in the Dark, The Last Mapmaker is also an adventure-fantasy steeped in Thai-specific tropes, drawn from Soontornvat’s Thai heritage. She has spoken critically about the fantasy genre’s overall Eurocentrism, including in a 2018 blog post for the Nerds of Color web community. “I had been reading books about British imperialism and the ‘Age of Discovery,’ in which all of the things that European empires supposedly discovered had already been discovered before,” she tells PW.
Soontornvat loves worldbuilding in ways that are novel and not derivative. “Building out the world down to the details of what the people eat, what their clothes look like, what their own legends and mythology are—that’s the fun stuff,” she says. “The best way to do that is to integrate the world with the story.”
The Last Mapmaker examines personal histories, making mistakes, and moving forward. “A big part of the worldbuilding was that everyone wears a visible piece of jewelry that shows how illustrious or humble their past was—a visual marker of if you have a worthy past or not,” Soontornvat says. “The whole society revolves around that, and it’s tied very tightly to my theme.”
Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in science education before embarking on a career in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits. She continues to be passionate about STEM, which informs her works in obvious—and less obvious—ways. “The most important lesson I learned in that work was that if you want someone to learn something, you have to make them feel something,” she says. “You cannot throw facts at people and expect them to care about it. To Change a Planet is packed with scientific information from primary sources like IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports, but at its core, it’s emotional. It’s a stirring call to action.”
Soontornvat still lives in Texas; she’s now in Austin with her partner, two young children, and a cat. She says that her ideas come from many sources: her Thai heritage, science, theater, her home state. “When I was younger, so many people I knew were passionate about one thing and threw all their energy into that area,” she recalls. “I was always bouncing around. I would get into history, then I would switch and I would get into science for a while. And then I would switch and I would want to read all of the works of Ernest Hemingway.”
She also considers it vital to spend time outdoors, to be with plants. She finds that experience invigorating. “The longer I go without doing that, I can just feel myself atrophying,” she says. “I take a lot of strength from being outside.”
This fall, Soontornvat has a second pair of books due out in two more new-to-her genres: A Life of Service (Candlewick), a picture book biography of Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; and The Tryout (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 memoir, as well as most books about her. “She’s such a wonderful speaker and writer, and I took the eloquence from her own words,” Soontornvat explains. “She’s so straightforward. There is nothing crafted, nothing insincere about her.”
The picture book has the same candid tone, and presents Duckworth’s many accomplishments in the military and government as the result of her spirited nature and tireless determination. “She just has this incredible inner strength and is driven by wanting to serve her country and give back to other people,” Soontornvat says. “That drive has enabled her to do the most incredible things.”
Soontornvat resisted writing about herself for a long time, but she turned inward for The Tryout. Her daughters, ages nine and 11, are obsessed with graphic novels, and they were the ones who convinced her to tell her own story as a tween. The book is about Soontornvat; her best friend Megan, who is Iranian American; and cheerleading tryouts in their rural Texas middle school. “I have complicated views about what I went through being the only Asian American kid in this small town,” she says. “I have painful memories. I also met the most amazing people in that little town. It’s not a simple story—but given the way conversations are going in this country, we need more complicated stories like that.”
Winning two Newbery Honors has elevated Soontornvat’s professional standing, but her writing process hasn’t changed at all. “Writing is such a cool job to have, because it’s not like playing a sport, where you’re going to reach your peak and then you’re never going to be that good again,” she says. “I look up to authors who came before me, like Nikki Grimes and Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith. When I look at them, I think, oh, I want to be like them. I’m just trying to keep learning and getting better at this writing thing.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.