The Magic Fish

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

The Best We Could Do

In her book Why Comics? Hillary Chute states flatly that the foundation of comics is in disaster—Spiegelman’s Holocaust, Jimmy Corrigan’s family, the destruction of Krypton. In Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, disaster is foundational and unavoidable as well, but is also intensely personal. We can see that what the world sees as Disaster and History, individual families see as Life. An important addition to the graphic memoir genre, this book tells its story of birth, war, trauma, alienation, and love entirely in personal terms. It grounds the overwhelming in the relatable, making what could be an alien story universal, and salvaging a dark history with the insights that only close family can provide.

The Best We Could Do is a family memoir, describing how writer/artist Bui’s family came to the United States soon after the end of the Vietnam War. In the manner of Spiegelman’s Maus, this book tells Bui’s parents’ stories and intermingles their traumatic histories with Bui’s and her sisters’ life in America. Unlike Maus, this is not a sardonic and self-effacing graphic memoir. It is instead poetic, slow-moving, nuanced, and compassionate. There’s a sadness throughout, the kind of sorrow that comes from recognizing parents as human beings, and from hearing stories that we know we cannot fully understand.

Bui’s father, for example, starts out as an unsympathetic character—he could easily be dismissed as a man who accidentally terrorized his children and emotionally abandoned his wife. However, Bui understands her father as she explores his story, what he has survived and the damage it’s done to his thoughts and emotions. As Bui’s sympathy for and understanding of the man who raised her increases, so does our own. He is a man who faced betrayal throughout his childhood, had unlikely good fortune, but was surrounded by instability—his father was a con artist, his mother born into wealth. He got into politics and found himself on the losing side of a war, saw his mother thrown into the street to starve, and learned that his father—who thrived in the new Communist regime—would not stick his neck out to save his son or grandchild. After the crisis had passed, the traumas remained. By his own admission, even as an old man, Bui’s father will always be something of a wounded child. It’s a painful truth, one that allows Bui’s father to start to forgive himself for his shortcomings as a husband and father, and allows Bui to do the same.

Bui’s mother’s story unfolds with similar complexity and richness—a brilliant student, she attended a French language school and found her voice on the right side of history but the wrong side of political reality. Her life was changed by pregnancy and by war, and by the dissolution of the aristocratic reality she grew up in and learned to despise even as she relied on it. A quiet fighter, Bui’s mother has our sympathy from the start; it’s respect we gain for her rather than affection. Her own experiences left her afraid, unable to stay through her granddaughter’s delivery as it forces her to recall her own pregnancies, a child lost, a fear that lingers through the rest of her life.

2017 was a big year for Bui; she won the Caldecott Medal for her children’s book, A Different Pond, and released The Best We Could Do to critical acclaim. At 42 this is her first graphic novel, and like some other great graphic works—Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Spiegelman’s Maus—it has taken her more than a decade to complete, and the results are as polished as you might hope. Bui favors gorgeous inks, reminiscent of Chinese ink painting. Her characters are a blend of cartoonish realism, capable of creating the impression of an emotionally complex person—the joy in children’s faces, their parents’ haunted eyes—in just a few lines.

Furthermore, these cartoons are recognizable as portraits of real people, matched to photographs within the book. The book is colored only with shaded oranges and blues, giving the entire work the feel of a sepia-toned photo album, most of its details realistic with a few outrageous features, like a framed picture of a human skull resting behind barbed wire adorning a suburban home’s wall. This all comes together as a cohesive whole, beautiful and fragile and sad. Bui conveys a family’s journey that was heroic and imperfect, truly the best they could do. A personal but universal story, well told and brilliantly illuminated. If it has any shortcomings, it’s only in its relatively sparse use of humor, even for a genre not known for jokes. Even so, this book is an extraordinary accomplishment and is essential reading for fans of literary comics.

The Best We Could Do is appropriate for high school, public, and academic library collections. There is some nudity and implied violence that will probably keep it out of younger school libraries. Its blending of literary and artistic achievement with the history of Vietnam—poorly understood in the U.S. despite its importance to our own recent history—marks this as a major work of personal nonfiction, and Bui’s accomplishments as an artist and storyteller distinguish her as a major talent. Also, as a story about refugees, this graphic adds a badly needed human perspective to an often impersonal—and growing—international crisis that U.S. policy has placed itself at the center of. If you are thinking about adding this book to your collection, your timing couldn’t be better.

The Best We Could Do 
By Thi Bui
ISBN: 9781419718786
Harry N. Abrams, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)

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Character Traits: Vietnamese,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator