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Austin's Christina Soontornvat fights perfection, offers Asian stories with latest books

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin author Christina Soontornvat  won two Newbery Honor awards last year.

Austin writer Christina Soontornvat’s newest book is actually one of her oldest. 

It’s the latest accomplishment in an enviable career. She’s published 13 books, including picture books, novels, nonfiction and chapter books. She just won two Newbery honors, the first time an author was recognized in a single year for fiction and nonfiction books. She co-created 2020’s Everywhere Book Fest, one of the first post-pandemic virtual literary festivals. 

Yet her new title, “The Ramble Shamble Children” (Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99), counsels young readers to avoid the pitfalls of comparison. The sweet picture book follows five children who work together to run their “ramble shamble” house but start to question whether it’s fancy enough. 

“This just popped into my head … these kids who take care of each other and then kind of lose their way by trying to make their house look like what they think it’s ‘supposed’ to look like,” Soontornvat explained via Zoom. “I imagine I was struggling with the things we all struggle with, like looking on social media and seeing perfect parents, perfect writers, their perfect homes and they’re going on these perfect vacations, and then you look at yourself and think, ‘Oh, I’m not the way I’m supposed to be; I’m supposed to be like that.'” 

'The Ramble Shamble Children' is Christina Soontornvat's newest book.

“The Ramble Shamble Children” was one of Soontornvat’s first contracts, springing from stories she told her then-3-year-old to keep her entertained during car rides. Her preschooler's only request? No grownups, reflected in both Soontornvat’s prose and Caldecott honor-winning illustrator Lauren Castillo’s art.  

'A Wish in the Dark' won a Newbery honor award for Christina Soontornvat.

The topsy-turvy publication timing is just another twist for an author who’s marked some of her biggest career successes since the pandemic scuttled last year’s launch plans for “A Wish in the Dark.” Her Thai-inspired retelling of “Les Misérables” for middle-graders — “the book of my heart” – had immense momentum ahead of its March 2020 publication. Trade reviewers and booksellers lavished praise, her publisher organized school and festival visits, and her BookPeople release party had trivia, giveaways and Thai treats like coconut cubes as part of the mix. Shutdowns canceled nearly all of it. 

Virtual book festival:Authors create Everywhere Book Festival for a pandemic world

Book recommendations:What to read to kids to get into school mode

More from Soontornvat:Find a new take on 'Les Misérables' from Austin author

"All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team' came out in 2020 and won a Newbery honor award.

A few months later, “All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team” arrived.  Soontornvat’s second Newbery honor book began back in 2018, when the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach became trapped in a cave at the same time Soontornvat was landing in Thailand for a family visit. The team’s rescue from floodwaters after days with no food or clean water captured global headlines — and Soontornvat’s attention.       

“One of the things that makes that book so successful is that she is able to look at it from a Thai perspective,” noted Andrea Tompa, executive editor of Candlewick Press and Soontornvat’s editor on “A Wish in the Dark” and “All Thirteen.”  

“She saw how there was that disconnect. Over in Thailand it was all over the news, and when she came back (to the U.S.), the focus was so different … there was this whole side of the story about all of the Thai volunteers that wasn't getting the same coverage over here that it was over there.” 

Winning Newbery honors still feels like a bit of a dream, said Soontornvat, who adds that when she got the call, she burst into tears. 

“I think it was just all hitting how hard I had worked on those books and to have that recognized, I was just so grateful for it,” she said. “And I was thinking as they were telling me, ‘Gosh, two books about Thailand, I did not have even one book about Thailand growing up, you know? And now there’s two books that have the Newbery sticker on them and that’s just huge.” 

The honors mean school librarians are more likely to stock the books and teachers are more likely to choose them for classroom discussion.

Young readers will soon have new Asian-inspired stories from Soontornvat. March 16 brought news of her latest deal at Scholastic, a middle-grade fantasy series dubbed “Legends of Lotus Island.” It centers on a girl who must survive her first year at an ancient island temple where students learn to transform into magical creatures.  

Such depth and breadth of representation is particularly important with the rise of anti-Asian slurs and attacks. Growing up in Weatherford outside of Fort Worth, Soontornvat remembers being called names and being told to “go back to China.” It’s hate speech that’s currently seeing a resurgence with deadly consequences. 

“I feel like a big part of my job, a big part of my responsibility, is to provide words that are counter to that, that are positive … that represent Thailand, that represent Southeast Asia, that represent Asian American people in a positive way,” she said. “And not just for Asian American readers, but for all readers.” 

Christina Soontornvat and Lauren Castillo 

Virtual educator/school visit event for “The Ramble Shamble Children” 

When: 1 p.m. Thursday

How to attend: Free with book purchase from BookPeople; $15 entry ticket without purchase. Replay is available for 30 days. 

Information and registration: bookpeople.com/event