Book: “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen
Publishing Info: Random House Graphic, October 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Tiến loves his family and his friends…but Tiến has a secret he’s been keeping from them, and it might change everything. An amazing YA graphic novel that deals with the complexity of family and how stories can bring us together.
Real life isn’t a fairytale. But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?
Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?
A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.
Review: I will be the first to admit that outside of my re-read of “The Sandman”, I’ve been slacking on the graphic novels as of late. But after dropping the ball on that, I have promised myself that I will try to be better, and make an effort to get some more in the review rotation. And let me tell you, I have a good one to start with, by a local author no less! I hadn’t heard of “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen until I saw it pop up on my Goodreads feed, and once I felt comfortable getting physical library books again after our Fall/early Winter surge I requested it. I went in with little knowledge and expectations, and was thoroughly impressed with what I found.
“The Magic Fish” has a number of themes that swirl in its pages, and all of them connect through the importance and power of stories, namely fairy tales. The plot follows Tiến, a middle school boy who is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who left Viet Nam as refugees, and who don’t speak much English. To practice mother Hiền will have Tiến check out fairy tales from the library and they will read them together. We follow Tiến as he starts to accept his sexuality, and as he wonders and worries about what his parents will think when he tells them that he’s gay. This takes place in the 1990s, and while Tiền’s friends seem to be accepting, people at school, and society at large, is not as much, which makes him feel Othered. Meanwhile, Hiền left her home in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, and hasn’t returned to see her family in many years. She and her husband are doing their best to raise their son in Minnesota, but being away from the home he had to leave is hard, and when she does go back it’s due to a very significant loss. I liked seeing both the themes of identity and immigration being addressed in the ways that they were, through some subtle and bittersweet longings, anxiety, and hope.
And then, the fairy tales. Both Hiền and Tiền bond through and are drawn to fairy tales, which intersperse within the narrative. The first two are various takes on the “Cinderella” story, one being the German “Allerleirauh”, and the other being the Vietnamese “Tấm Cám”. Story one is shared between Hiền and Tiền at their home, while the second is one that Hiền is revisiting while she is back in Vietnam. Both interpretations and presentations play into what we’re seeing in the moment, be it Tiền hiding his true self from his mother, or Hiền being reminded that sometimes fairy tales don’t have the happily ever afters that everyone seeks. But it’s the re-telling of “The Little Mermaid” that I liked the best, another shared between Hiền and Tiền, and subverted in a way that shows that we tell our own stories, and that we get to choose how they end. It’s all so seamless and lovely, and I greatly enjoyed it.
And the artwork. THE ARTWORK. Different stories have different designs, and again, they tie into what is going on in the moment on the surface and beneath it. For example, the three fairy tales all had different aesthetic designs for the art styles (my personal favorite was “Tấm Cám”, influenced by a 1950s Viet Nam French Colonial style), while moments in reality may have different colors depending on time and place. It always works, and all of it is beautiful.
“The Magic Fish” is a charming story that reads and feels like a modern fairy tale. I highly recommend that you read it if you love graphic novels.
Rating 8: A lovely coming of age story with magical moments and gorgeous artwork, “The Magic Fish” is a joyful and emotional tale of family and the power of stories.