This is a book close to my storyteller’s heart highlighting the power of stories to transcend time and place while remaining relevant and personal. Initially, the protagonist Tien and Hien, his mother, listen to each other read folktales to gain language skills and deepen the strong ties between the immigrant mother and her American-born son. She struggles with English and he is not conversant in Vietnamese, but they both comprehend the tales they share. Interwoven with the tales are the very real bittersweet concerns of a mother homesick for Vietnam and the family members left behind and of her teenage son, Tien, who is searching for the precise words in Vietnamese to come out to his parents about his sexuality. The telling of the folktales, intertwined with the personal experience stories, exemplifies the alienation both characters are experiencing and the trials and challenges they must overcome along the way while illuminating the strong family bonds, love, and respect for each other.

The three folktales, the number so pertinent to the genre of western folklore, include two variants of the Cinderella tale type, a loose adaptation of the German variant “Allerleirauh” and “Ta’m Cam” from Vietnam, and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. They serve to emphasize both the universality of the archetypes and the cultural differences in the traditional tales as well as the innate visual interpretations of the listeners reflecting their own backgrounds and individual needs.

As the author explains in his after note, Tien would be most familiar with the western sensibilities of princess stories popularized by contemporary toys and cartoons reflecting the anachronistic visual details of these tales and these sensibilities are faithfully illustrated in this retelling. The second variant is told by his mother’s aunt on her visit to Vietnam upon the death of her mother. Here, the tale is reminiscent of French colonial elements in the building structures and clothing of the characters. The third tale is told to Tien by his mother, reflecting her visual memories of Vietnam, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. “The mermaid is a stand-in for Helen’s [Hien] experiences, a woman who wanted to escape to another world and manages to make it there at the cost of her ability to communicate. It is this underlying element of not being able to adequately communicate that ties the three folktales and the contemporary story together so successfully. Because the three tales are told with such care and detail, readers of the graphic novel share the stories along with the characters. Nguyen trusts the folklore to do their magic as they illuminate Tien’s struggle to come out to his mother and the unconditional love his mother has for him as she struggles to comprehend what he is trying to tell her. The contemporary story also amplifies the friendship and acceptance that Tien has from his school mates, if not the school administration. There is one dark segment when the teacher and priest’s guidance is detrimental to Tien’s well being, but this is eventually overcome as well.

The expansive retellings are delineated by the light purple backgrounds, while the sandy yellow background signifies Hien’s memories, and Tien’s contemporary 1998 experiences is rendered in tones of red. The black and white illustrations themselves are simple with clean lines and layout except for the marvelous clothes and buildings in the folktales themselves. Most of the illustrations were created digitally, a new, but ultimately successful, experience for Nguyen.

This quiet and reflective book also warms my librarian heart as it validates the effectiveness of libraries and books. It is a book that I raved about to Gina Gagliano, publishing director of Random House Graphic, in a personal conversation without realizing her robust contribution in bringing the book to fruition. I join in Nguyen in thanking her as this is a book I will be raving about in my university courses on comic books and on storytelling and with friends.

Highly recommended for readers of all ages of folktales and those who appreciate the values of compassion and human kindness.


The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
ISBN: 9780593125298
Random House, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 12 +

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Vietnamese American, Queer
Creator Highlights: Vietnamese American, Queer
Related to…: Book to Comic

  • Gail

    | She/Her Professor, Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta

    Reviewer

    In addition to teaching at the School of Library and Information Studies (University of Alberta) where she is an adjunct professor, Gail tells stories and conducts workshops on a wide variety of topics across Canada and the United States. Each year she teaches the following courses for the University of Alberta. All of her courses are delivered online: Storytelling, Comic Books and Graphic Novels in School and Public Libraries, Canadian Children’s Literature for School and Public Libraries and Young Adult Literature. She also teaches a course on Indigenous Literature for the ATEP program (Aboriginal Teacher Education Program) at the University of Alberta. Gail is the award-winning author of nine books on storytelling and folklore in popular culture.

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