Wishes

As a picture book author, whenever I write a new manuscript, I always fret about ensuring that my words leave room for an artist’s interpretation. Mượn Thị Văn’s words in Wishes are so powerful — yet incredibly spare (75 words in total). I can only wonder how Victo Ngai felt when she read them for the first time. Did her mind immediately start to swirl with these intricate, luminous images? Her illustrations are dreamlike, yet so full of realistic detail that they transport me into the scene. I can feel the rocking of the boat. I can hear bags being zippered shut.

I have been a fan of Ngai since she illustrated Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, written by Chris Barton. That book is indeed dazzling, and somehow she made what could have been a dry historical subject come to vivid life. But for this new book, Ngai leaves behind all the vibrant colors — at least at first. As we begin, we are brought into the tattered, but love-filled, home of an impoverished family, whose adult daughter and her three young children are in the middle of a sudden, nighttime escape. The author’s note tells us that this perhaps reflects her own harrowing departure from Vietnam to Hong Kong in the years after the Vietnam War.

The colors in these early spreads are muted, and the lines are soft. Even the shadows are quiet. When you read this part of the story aloud, you whisper. Clearly, the night is full of danger for this family. The look of fear and bewilderment on the young protagonist’s face conveys the confusion that children so often feel when they are at the mercy of the ways of the adult world.

One remarkable thing about this book is that, for most of it, the story is told from the point of view of non-human objects:

The bag wished it was deeper.

The boat wished it was bigger.

The sea wished it was calmer.

The overall effect is to make us wonder: can’t human hearts show the same kindness as the bag, the sea, the night? If a clock can show compassion, can’t human beings do the same for each other?

Ngai renders the commonplace objects in her scenes with such detail, giving them the prominence and the dignity they deserve, for very soon these simple objects will make the difference between life and death. Rice tenderly wrapped in banana leaves will be the only food on the journey. A rusty gas can must hold enough fuel to get the refugees’ boat to safety. Smoke wafting elegantly from incense sticks must carry a prayer all the way across an ocean.

Ngai paints scenes that evoke empathy, and by “zooming in” on the characters’ faces she does not shy away from the pain of leaving home or the agony that most refugees endure on their journey. When the woman places her hand to her mouth as she watches her father say goodbye to her children, we feel the deep sorrow of knowing that they very likely will never see each other again.

And yet as we continue to turn pages, the hues become rosier, the palette grows lighter, until we are greeted by the final image — dawn shining on the family as they finally sail into a safe harbor. The image I find to be the most moving, however, comes one spread before: translucent overlays of many tender hands reach out to gather the little girl to safety, to rescue her family. Here, finally, we see the human equivalent of compassion that has come so readily from the inanimate objects of the world. All it takes is an open hand, an open heart, to save the life of a human being.

Finally, don’t forget to peel back the jacket to look at the case cover, which features the faces of refugees from other times and places. These faces, combined with the reality of our current refugee crisis (more than 80 million people displaced globally), remind us that this story is both specific and universal. There is hope here — but it’s up to us all to provide it.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Wishes here.]

Christina Soontornvat

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 ThirteenThe Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team were both named 2021 Newbery Honor Books.

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Molly Sloan

Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on this gorgeous book, Christina. I love your words: "There is hope here, but it's up to us all to provide it." I will read your reflection on this book to my 3rd-5th graders who are members of our Caldecott Club. Thank you.

Posted : Oct 18, 2021 08:28

Free Access

Molly, do tell us, if you don't mind, which books your club members are loving (or end up loving in the end!).

Posted : Oct 18, 2021 08:28

Tamara DePasquale null

We have also read Wishes for our Mock Caldecott. I'm still trying to determine if the illustrator is eligible. We love that book and will be heartbroken if the citizenship requirement keeps title from consideration. That said, we just love text and illustration. Such a special gift to children's literature!

Posted : Oct 23, 2021 05:08

Martha Parravano

Hi Tamara: There should be no issues with illustrator Victo Ngai's eligibility, as she lives in Los Angeles. Caldecott rules specify EITHER citizenship or residency -- you don't need both, fortunately.

Posted : Oct 25, 2021 02:15


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