Tidesong, by Wendy Xu (co-creator of Mooncakes), tells the story of Sophia, a young witch who has been sent to stay with estranged relatives to train for an entrance exam to the prestigious Royal Magic Academy. She clashes with her strict Great Aunt Lan, but also assumes her Aunt Sage is patronizing when she tries to teach with a more gentle touch. Things are not going as planned and Sophia is frustrated.
Through inner dialog (written in sharp red intrusions), we see that Sophia is filled with anxiety and a low self-esteem. Everything she does is wrong, others see her as a failure, and there is no hope for a successful life if she isn’t selected to learn magic at the Academy. This anxiety tests her relationships with those around her. She focuses more on academy acceptance than on learning the lessons in front of her, or for that matter, understanding the people around her.
In a reckless attempt to prove that she is capable, Sophia sneaks out of the house one night and tries to harness the wind and water to fight against a difficult storm, dismissing the cautions urged by others. She almost drowns during her attempt, but is saved underwater by Lin, a dragon. In the act of saving Sophia, Lin’s dragon body transforms into human form. He later shows up on Sophia’s doorstep with no memories and a sense of magical connection with Sophia. They must work together to recover his memories, and Sophia takes the opportunity to diligently practice for the academy exam, often with disregard to the other task at hand.
Xu’s illustrations are filled with flowing lines of magic, water, and wind through a world with hints of soft magic everywhere. There are strange creatures sitting in tide pools, characters with abnormal features, and conversations through mirrors. Xu used these illustrations to deepen our understanding of the setting and characters. The themes of growth and acceptance are also enhanced with Xu’s use of soft colors and soft lines, rather than more detailed and stark illustrations that would escalate the feelings of pressure and insecurities.
I am always a sucker for stories that explore character and relationships. As the story unfolds, we see Sophia is not alone with her doubt and insecurities and that those pressures need not define you. Sophia slowly opens herself to relationships and the wisdom of others. While learning to control the wind and water through finesse rather than force, she finds that those with the most important lessons are witches who never went to the Royal Magic Academy themselves. Sophia begins to discover a path through life shaped with perseverance and acceptance, rather than ambition and narrow definitions of success.
Wendy Xu explored themes of relationships and self-acceptance through a beautiful fantasy world that will resonate with many readers, even if they aren’t able to braid flowing water with their fingers. I recommend this for any library serving children where graphic novels are popular. Middle grade readers in school and public libraries will savor this story about growth and friendship.
The Tidesong marketing blurb makes connections to Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society and this book definitely lives up to the comparisons. It is a beautiful graphic novel drawn in a cartoon style with soft colors and imaginative world building. Xu built the story around characters and their relationships and in doing so told a story that warmed my heart.
By Wendy Xu
Harper Collins, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American