“During my school visits, I also explicitly tell students that they each have stories to tell that are important and worthy of being read.”
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ms. Soontornvat, you’ve had an amazing few months lately. Two of your middle-grade books published in 2020, the nonfiction All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team and the fantasy A Wish in the Dark, have collectively won multiple awards, including two Newbery Honors and a Golden Kite. Congratulations! What’s it like to be you right now?
CHRISTINA SOONTORNVAT: I am so very grateful for the recognition my work has received. In some ways things have changed—I am definitely much busier with speaking engagements! But in other ways, everything is normal in a good, steady way. I have a lot of projects that were already in the works before the awards were announced, which I’m also thankful for. Otherwise I think I might feel a lot of pressure for “what to do next.”
Your education is very STEM. You hold a BS in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in science education, and you spent quite a while working in the science museum field. What was your inspiration to begin writing for a living?
For almost ten years I was writing “on the side” while working full or part time in science education, and just working on squeezing writing in whenever I could carve out a few hours here or there. I’ve only been able to transition to writing full time in the last two years. I loved my job in museums and still miss working with the wonderful people I met during my career. But I’m so grateful that I have enough work to focus on it solely. Who knows how that may change in the future—maybe someday I will be able to go back into education again!
You are a prolific writer. Your books include middle-grade fiction and nonfiction, the Diary of an Ice Princess series of chapter books, and picture books for young children. What are the differences in your writing process for these disparate types of books?
Each book is so different and each age range is so different! Picture books are mostly like writing poetry, and I usually create those in snippets that I weave together eventually. Even though they are short, they take me years, sometimes because they have to be “just right” with nothing extra or superfluous. They are the hardest for me!
I usually heavily outline chapter books and early middle grade. They are also pretty tight, with little margin to go wandering, so it’s important to me to go into those very organized so that I don’t ramble. With novels, I usually start off with a main character and it may take me 100 pages of writing before I figure them out (at which point I often scrap most of those 100 pages!). I do try to have an ending in mind before I embark on a novel, otherwise it’s hard to know what direction the story will take. I think I’ve learned to do more prewriting (outlines, maps, etc.) because it does save me time on the back end.
You also offer children’s programs for schools and libraries, etc. I read that when you were a child you were taught that only certain types of people could become writers. What can one expect from a Christina Soontornvat appearance, and how do you use these programs to teach kids that anyone can be a writer?
I try to make writing and publishing feel attainable by making myself as accessible and real as possible. I think getting to know authors as actual people who are goofy and honest helps kids realize that there is nothing innately “special” about us. We are passionate people who work hard toward our goals, and that’s the same for most fields of work. During my school visits, I also explicitly tell students that they each have stories to tell that are important and worthy of being read. For me, this is essential because as a child I absorbed the message that only certain types of stories deserved to be published.
You are one of the directors of last year’s virtual Everywhere Book Fest, which was a response to the sudden and complete shutdown of in-person literary festivals, due to plague. How has COVID-19 affected your work, and what measures have you found successful in adapting to this new environment? Will there be another Everywhere Book Fest this year?
The Everywhere Book Fest was such a great project to be a part of, but we will not be continuing this year. We felt like we fulfilled a big need last year when everyone was scrambling to figure out how to transition to virtual events.
COVID has of course affected every part of my life just as it has for most of us. I have struggled to meet the needs of our children and keep up my work at the same time. But I count myself so very lucky—I have not lost anyone to the disease and no one in our close family has gotten ill. Given how much people have suffered this year, that is all I can ask for.
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How has Texas, both your hometown of Weatherford and the capital city, shaped you and your writing?
There is no question that my Texas roots have shaped who I am as a person and as an author. As much as I love living in Austin, I think that I’ll always be that small town, Weatherford girl at heart. Growing up in that environment was challenging—I was one of the only Asian American kids at my school. But I also formed such strong friendships and found some of the best and kindest people I’ve ever known. This is something that I will be exploring in depth in future books (that have yet to be announced!).
I’ve read that you visit Bangkok often to visit family. In the spirit of the previous question, how has Thailand shaped you and your writing? Did you get to do on-site research for All Thirteen?
Yes, no question that my Thai roots have had an equal effect on my identity and my writing! Both parts of my heritage are equally important to me. Even when I’m writing fantasy, I “write what I know”, meaning that I draw from my experiences and family stories, whether those stories are Thai or Texan. And yes, I did travel to Thailand to do extensive research and interviewing for All Thirteen. That trip and my in-person research is what enabled me to write the book that I did.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
Next year I have a new middle-grade fantasy novel coming from Candlewick that is unrelated to A Wish in the Dark, but I hope it will be something my readers of that novel will enjoy. I also have a nonfiction picture book about climate change coming next spring called To Change a Planet. It will be illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell.
What books are on your nightstand?
BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Michele Wood. I keep rereading it because it is a masterpiece of language and poetic form. I learn more every time I go back through it. I also recently finished Starfish by Lisa Fipps, a novel in verse. The voice, humor, and heartbreak in the story is going to stay with me for a very long time.
Christina Soontornvat is an award-winning author, engineer, and STEM educator. Her many works for children include picture books and the Diary of an Ice Princess chapter-book series. Her middle grade fantasy novel, A Wish in the Dark, and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team were both named 2021 Newbery Honor Books.