2020 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Chapter Book

October 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

Yes, it’s time! With supply chain challenges predicted towards the end of the year, and reading one of the few escapes we’re allowed these days, I’m kicking off this year’s Gift Guide a few weeks early, and you can expect weekly posts through Thanksgiving. There will be lots of round-ups with lists for all ages, littles through teens. (And yes, there will be one exclusively on graphic novels.) But I’m beginning today by highlighting one verrrrrry special book that came out this week. Usually, I kick off my Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year (and we’ll get to that, I promise), but I’m turning tradition on its head (it’s 2020, after all) and we’re going to start with a book for older readers and listeners. If you keep your eyes on my Instagram this week, you could even win a copy!

Let me start by saying that I am not, by nature, a nonfiction fan. Let me add that I don’t think my ten-year-old daughter has ever picked up a nonfiction book of her own volition. (She rarely lets me read the Author’s Note in a picture book!) Then there’s the fact that this book chronicles a story whose ending most of us already know. In fact, it’s one our family has already encountered in two previous kids’ books. So, how on earth did this nonfiction book—229 pages before the additional 40 pages of footnotes—end up a favorite 2020 read of our entire family?

I remember like it’s yesterday: picking up my son at camp the first week of July, 2018, and having him greet me every afternoon with, “Are they out yet?” Since June 23, our family—like millions around the world—had been glued to the news coverage of the twelve young soccer players and their coach, trapped inside a rapidly flooding cave in Northern Thailand after a field trip went wrong. The successful seventeen-day rescue mission that followed, where thousands of rescuers from around the world tackled one seemingly impossible obstacle after another, captivated people not only because of its tremendous scope and scale, but because at the center was a group of sweet, soccer-loving kids.

As it turns out, Thai-American children’s author Christina Soontornvat was visiting family in Thailand at the time, her plane touching down the same day the children went missing. We may have been riveted by the story on our other side of the globe, but the Thai people were consumed by it. Life as they knew it was temporarily suspended. Schools were closed; vigils were held. Farmers voluntarily sacrificed their land to the drainage operation, while others led drillers through the wild jungles surrounding the cave, and still others cooked food for volunteers. The experience for Soontornvat was such that, a few months later, she returned to Northern Thailand to spend time with the rescued boys and their coach, paving the way for an exhaustive undertaking of interviews with nearly all the key figures in the rescue.

In All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team (Ages 10-16), Soontornvat has written a chapter book that reads like fiction while telling the most textured, suspenseful, holistic version of this incredible true story to date. If there was ever a year when we needed a story that showcases the very best of humanity—the strength, ingenuity, and kindness exhibited when we come together as helpers—it is 2020.

Give this book to the tweens and teens in your life. If they won’t pick it up, read it to them, because there’s a particular power in hearing Soontornvat’s words spoken aloud. My teenage son inhaled this book on his own, but I read it aloud to my daughter, and it was she who kept exclaiming, “I know what’s going to happen, and I’m still on the edge of my seat!” I’ve often heralded how fun it is to learn alongside our children, and All Thirteen is a brilliant example of a book that has something to teach us—about Thai culture, about science and engineering, about the nail-biting niche of cave diving, and about the nature of teamwork and the human capacity for survival—on every single page.

You can take the most fascinating slice of history and render it dry and dense and boring with the wrong presentation. Soontornvat is a novelist by trade, and she brings to All Thirteen the same careful attention to setting, character, and language that shape her excellent works of fiction. (If her name sounds familiar, it’s because I recently sang the praises of her other 2020 release, a gorgeous Thai-inspired fantasy titled, A Wish in the Dark, another book I wouldn’t hesitate to gift every tween this holiday.) But while her poetic chapter titles, rich details, and perfectly-timed cliff hangers could easily stand on their own, they’re given a visual presentation every bit as exquisite. The book’s design is an effective blend of text, white space, and dozens upon dozens of stunning, full-color diagrams and photographs.

On every page, often invoking the second person, Soontornvat puts the reader at the center of the action. She makes sure we understand, not only the timeline, challenges, and decisions along the way, but the larger context. She immerses us in the flooded chambers, narrow “squeezes,” and U-shaped “sumps” of the cave itself. She asks us to imagine what it’s like to be one of the Wild Boars, starving and stranded in complete darkness, or to be one of the best divers in the world, dragging yourself and your oxygen supply through sharp stalactites, hands tight around a guideline because it’s impossible to gauge any single direction. But Soontornvat also makes sure we have an appreciation for the lush mountainous countryside, the increased unpredictability of the rainy season, the spirituality behind Coach Ek’s meditation lessons to his team, and that Tham Luang cave is as much a sacred place as it is one of grave danger.

Soontornvat brings each of the young soccer players to life, this mixed-age group of dedicated, studious, playful boys who are teammates on and off the field. Exploring a cave is not an unusual pastime for this outdoors-loving crew; and the only thing more impressive than the fortitude, hope, and courage they demonstrate across the seventeen days of the rescue mission is their humility and gratitude for the rescuers. One of my daughter’s favorite pages showcases the warm but stoic letters the boys write to their families while in the cave. Still, as capable as these boys are, all of them credit Coach Ek with the leadership that inspires them to stay alive, subsisting on dripping rainwater and mental exercises. One chapter is devoted entirely to this remarkable young man, one of four “stateless” members of the team.

We might go into All Thirteen with a central interest in the young boys and their coach, but we come out with an equal appreciation for many of the adults involved, including British caver, Vern Unsworth, who lives near Tham Luang and is one of the first on the scene; members of the US Air Force and Royal Thai Navy SEALS; recreational cave divers around the world who drop everything to get on airplanes; Thanet Natisri, a groundswater expert, who organizes a team of homespun drillers and pumpers at the site; and the “unsung” heroes, who clean and cook and do any number of things asked of them under little to no sleep. Soontornvat doesn’t merely introduce us to these individuals; she showcases the creative, if at times maddening, ways they are forced to work across cultural hurdles and differences of opinion. When they need specific equipment, they involve locals who either source it or, amazingly, fashion it out of on-hand materials like bamboo or farm equipment. This internationally coordinated, all-hands-on-deck effort may be one of the most astounding demonstration of teamwork in history.

Without compromising her pacing or losing the narrative thread, Soontornvat also dives into the complicated science and engineering required to pull off this extraordinary feat, using language perfectly tailored to her tween and teen readers. For as many side bars as she gives us on Thai culture, she gives us as many on geology, cave mapping, sump diving, breathing equipment, and the stages of hypothermia. The fact that my daughter insisted on our reading each and every one of these boxes speaks for itself.

The last six chapters of the book—and good luck putting it down for even a single minute—are devoted to the final days of the rescue, in which the boys are brought out of the flooded cave, four at a time, each tethered to a diver. Even if you, like me, obsessively followed the live news coverage, there is no way to prepare yourself for the nerve-wracking hours detailed here, including two days of rehearsals where divers practice on local kids and doctors agonize over what kind of medicine to give the boys to put them to sleep. If you think it’s easy to fit oxygen masks on emaciated faces, you’re wrong. If you think the boys stayed asleep the whole time like they were supposed to, you’re wrong. If you think things went smoothly, as the news coverage had us believe, they didn’t. In fact, when the final extraction plan was hatched, it was assumed—by the very experts who crafted it—that nearly half the boys would not make it out alive.

It might not be a surprise to us readers that all thirteen Wild Boars makes it out of the cave alive; and yet, there are surprises on every one of the pages that get us there. A book that keeps us guessing, that holds us spellbound, that fills us with awe for what’s possible and gratitude that this is our world? I’d say that’s a heck of a way to kick off 2020’s Gift Guide.

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Review copy by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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