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On Teamwork and Christina Soontornvat's All Thirteen

There is a moment in Christina Soontornvat's All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team when the reader comes to a realization. The moment comes rather early, as Soontornvat describes the Tham Luang cave system: the big, airy entrance chamber and the sections that "force visitors into a crouch and then a crawl, where the ceiling drops to just a few feet high." She goes on to explain:

Here, cavers are well beyond the "twilight zone," the part of the cave where light from the outside world still reaches. Without a flashlight the darkness is complete. If you are claustrophobic, this is where you turn around.

This is the moment. This is when you feel the fear in your gut, the barely suppressed panic in your spirit. This is when you know you would turn around.

But those boys and their coach did not. They crouched and crawled and even waded in chest-deep water as they explored. In every way, they were braver than I am. The floodwaters came on unexpectedly, trapping them deep in the cave system, and for weeks most of the planet was rapt, keeping half an ear on the story of those boys. Even though we know this story has a happy ending, Soontornvat has crafted a detailed narrative that wraps the reader in the tension of this impossible rescue, taking us back to the days when no one knew if they were alive, if they could be found, if they could be saved. But everyone was willing to try.

Soccer is, in my opinion, the ultimate team sport. It is, as they say, the beautiful game. Sure, there are superstars, usually goal-scoring divas with their celebratory drama. But the game at its best is like a finely-choreographed ballet, each player vital, each possession quietly contributing to the overall goal. Even when your team is dominating, and your goal-keeper is mostly idle, he is a stalwart figure. He cannot relax; he must remain engaged, in tune with each moment, each player on his side. There are elements of the game that are under-appreciated, but they are never underestimated by those who know the game.

With this book, Soontornvat has given us a window into this remarkable rescue, highlighting every key play, even the ones others have overlooked. From the locals who worked unending hours to keep the rescue workers supplied with food and other necessities to the unlikely partnerships between rural farmers and oil companies and one determined Thai-American architecture student; from the US Armed Forces to the Thai SEAL team; from cave diving specialists in the UK to the Thai leadership: every part worked together to accomplish what should have been impossible. Beyond the miracle of those boys' lives, that's the piece that surprised me, the element I will take away from this book -- the teamwork.

Here's just one example. Once they determined that they would have to risk diving the boys out, something that had literally never been attempted before, the team sprang into action. They would need a plan, of course, a medical doctor with a speciality in anesthesiology, and full-face dive masks that would fit a child. The only place the masks could be found was in a small dive shop in the UK, and they only had two. These two precious masks "are rushed to the airport in London with a full police escort."

Doesn't that image give you chills? Even just the barest hope of saving these children has an international team working together to secure whatever is needed, sacrificing whatever is required (local farmers saw their rice paddies completely destroyed by the pumped-out water and asked for nothing in return). This is collective hope at its utmost. It is a reminder that every life is worth the effort, that we can do impossible things when we work together as a team.


The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.

OST: Its impeccable pacing and skillful research will make this an excellent non-fiction addition to the conversation, but I don't think it will rise to the top.

Previous titles under consideration:


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