Christina Soontornvat was recently recognized with two Newbery Honors – for All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team (Candlewick, 2020) and A Wish in the Dark (Candlewick, 2020). All Thirteen was also a 2021 Sibert Honor, a finalist for YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction, and an Orbis Pictus Honor Book, as well as garnering many other honors and starred reviews.
Today, we’re welcoming her to Cynsations to talk about her newly-released book, The Ramble Shamble Children, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2021), a story Christina wrote long before ever hearing about the Thai Soccer Team.
Your newest release is The Ramble Shamble Children. What was the inspiration behind this picture book?
I came up with the idea during a time when my daughter was always asking me to tell her stories “with no grownups.” She went through a phase where she wanted me to create stories about her and her friends having adventures and living together all by themselves.
Additional inspiration came from my in-laws and their small farm. We’ve always loved visiting them and hanging out in their big garden with their animals. And I have always loved that their kids (even from a young age) had very big and important jobs: They were expected to feed chickens and corral ducks and tend to the vegetables. I could see how much their children enjoyed having responsibility and were so proud of being independent.
All of these influences swirled together in my brain when I first penned the story of The Ramble Shamble Children, five kids who live all by themselves and take care of each other.
This book released this year, but it was one of your first book deals. What does it feel like to finally be able to share it?
Yes, we sold this book in 2015 and it’s just now coming out! Our illustrator, the fantastically talented Lauren Castillo, had other projects in the pipeline already and we had to wait our turn. I will definitely admit to feeling impatient at the beginning—especially because as a new author, I didn’t realize how long picture books take to create in general.
But I actually feel like having the book come out later has been positive in several ways. For one thing, the art is absolutely gorgeous. Lauren has shared that she used some new illustration techniques for this book, which create a fantastical and “classic” feel to them. The art alone has been worth waiting for.
Waiting also gave me a good reason to put my head down and keep writing, writing, writing. In the span of those six-ish years, I wrote and sold over a dozen more books in many different genres and for many different ages.
I also think that the themes we explore in The Ramble Shamble Children have even more resonance now than they would have if we had published earlier. This spring, after most of us have spent a full year staying inside our own houses, many of us are seeking a more complete and fulfilling idea of what makes a home. Personally, I find myself rejecting external notions of what my home is “supposed to look like” and instead I want to focus on the people who live inside those walls. And these are all themes that I believe ring ever more true in the book.
You’ve written picture books, chapter books and middle grade, both fiction and nonfiction. Was it always in your plan to write across age and genres?
Definitely not! I started off thinking that I would be a middle grade fantasy author—period. But I quickly realized that I had all sorts of stories I wanted to tell. I think my varied background (a career that spans science, education, and now the arts) has made me feel more comfortable tackling diverse projects and taking risks.
Every time I try something new, there is a small part of me that is slightly scared. It was a little scary to decide to major in engineering in college. And a little scary to leave engineering to pursue a career in museums. And a little scary (okay, a lot scary) to decide I wanted to pursue publication. But that twinge of fear and discomfort also makes me want to do my absolute best and prove myself.
I have come to crave stepping out of my comfort zone a little with every new book. I’ve also found that writing many different types of things has helped my craft overall. For example, I learned so much about structure and pacing when I wrote the Diary of an Ice Princess series (Scholastic, 2019 – 2020), and I drew on those lessons when I wrote All Thirteen.
Writing picture books forces you to be so intentional with every single word. I think I rewrote the last lines of The Ramble Shamble Children at least twenty times to find the right ending!
How do you balance the demands of being an author (ie, promotional work) with being a writer?
I’m not sure I balance it that well! I definitely feel overwhelmed at times by all that is required of authors outside of the actual work of writing. Especially social media. I think engaging in social media changes the way my brain works. My mind is never fully in one place because I always have some tether to the conversations going on over on Twitter or Instagram, etc. It’s like a little string tugging at me!
But so many wonderful things have come out of being connected to other writers, readers, educators, booksellers, and thought leaders, so I can’t see myself disconnecting entirely. I think this is one dilemma of our age (and not just for writers): how do we use these tools to benefit our work without allowing them to consume and change us? I think having dedicated time when you shut it all off is essential.
What do you have coming next?
My next book will be another picture book! To Change a Planet is a lyrical nonfiction book that addresses climate change with truth and hope for our youngest readers. It is illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell and will come out from Scholastic one year from now. In many ways, it’s in conversation with The Ramble Shamble Children because it focuses on how we must work together to protect what’s most important—our planet, our only home.
I’m also writing a new early middle grade series called The Legends of Lotus Island (Scholastic, 2023). And I will have another standalone middle grade fantasy from Candlewick Press out next spring.
What advice do you have for other writers who may be in a stage of waiting at various points in their careers?
It is natural to feel impatient and to look forward with anticipation to those “big” moments, such as signing with an agent, revealing a cover, having a launch party, etc. But in my experience, those big moments are such brief flashes! They make an external impression on everyone else because those are the moments we share on Instagram, Twitter, etc. (here we are, back to that social media dilemma!).
But the bulk of your writing life will be spent in quiet, at work. If we can find our greatest fulfillment in the work, we will be happier—and our books will be so much better! So whatever you are waiting for—enjoy the wait and know that it will be worth it.
Christina Soontornvat is the award-winning author of over a dozen books for children of all ages. Her picture books include The Ramble Shamble Children, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Lauren Castillo, and Simon at the Art Museum, illustrated by Christine Davenier (Atheneum, 2020). She is the author of the beloved Diary of an Ice Princess chapter book series. Her recent works include the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark, which was named a 2021 Newbery Honor Book, and was chosen as Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and School Library Journal, and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, which has received numerous nonfiction awards and was also named a 2021 Newbery Honor Book.
Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She is active in the children’s literature community and is the former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. You can find her on Twitter @GayleenRabakukk.