Cover of The Magic Fish, with a Vietnamese boy reading a book and a mermaid in the background

About the Book

Title: The Magic Fish
Published: 2020
Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Cover Story: Lost in a Book
BFF Charm: Yay x2
Talky Talk: Fairy Tales and Family
Arty Art: Focused
Bonus Factors: Fairy Tales, Tami Taylor Award for Awesome Motherhood
Anti-Bonus Factor: “Confusing Feelings”
Relationship Status: Heart Eyes

Cover Story: Lost in a Book

I feel a strong connection with this kid and the intensity with which he’s looking at his book. We can assume he’s reading about the mermaid behind him—the lighter lines with which she’s drawn give her a dreamy quality—and is about to walk into a pole or off a curb because he’s so wrapped up in her story!

The Deal:

Tiến is the son of Vietnamese immigrants and a young man caught between worlds. He’s happy at home, where he spends time reading fairy tales to and with his parents to both practice their English and keep Vietnamese stories alive. At first, Tiến doesn’t see how the fairy tales they tell each other have much in common with their actual lives, but he’s surprised when fiction and reality collide in the most unexpected ways.

BFF Charm: Yay x2

2 BFF charms

I’m actually much closer in age to Tiến’s mother, who’s in her 30s, than I am Tiến, who’s 13. But both are deserving of a BFF Charm—they’re generous, sweet people who want to make their loved ones happy, but have difficulty finding the right words. They are honest and thoughtful and tell the prettiest stories. I’d love to be a fly on the wall while they’re reading to each other.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Tiến is struggling with how to tell his family he’s gay—and with his feelings for one of his best friends, Julian, who Tiến is pretty sure is not. As they’re all just teenagers, the angst is very sweet, and the “resolution” (as much as there is one) is so lovely and gives me hope.

Talky Talk: Fairy Tales and Family

Although The Magic Fish is mostly told from the POV of Tiến—outside of the fairy tales themselves—there is a lot of time spent with Tiến’s mom’s POV, too. The connections (at least to them) between their lives and the stories they’re telling each other are seamless, and the beauty of the realizations that fiction can have a lot of truth is so poignant. Tiến’s story isn’t exactly Le Nguyen’s, but there are a lot of similarities, and the book certainly reads like a memoir; it’s obvious that even though this might not be a memoir, it’s a deeply personal tale.

There’s a quiet nature to this book, even when some of the stories get gruesome, as fairy tales can sometimes do, or life gets real. Reading the book felt like a meditation and a palate cleanser, but The Magic Fish is no sorbet; the book is a standout.

Arty Art: Focused

Page via Random House Graphic

Le Nguyen’s art is perfect for this book—sweet and soft with a lot of emotion that leaps off the page. The color palette is limited, with purples denoting the fairy tales, pinks for real-life present day, and yellow for the past (and a few other additions to emphasize certain aspects of a few panels). Although much of the art is simple without a lot of ornamentation or backgrounds to draw attention away from the action, there are places in which Le Nguyen pulled out all the stops and created super-detailed panels, specifically with costumes and emotionally charged scenes. But these detailed panels don’t detract from the rest of the book; Le Nguyen balances it all beautifully.

Bonus Factor: Fairy Tales

Artistic drawing of colorful fairy tale characters all piled together

As someone who grew up with the Grimm or Anderson fairy tales (or the Disney versions of said fairy tales), I love reading the tales of other cultures, specifically those that are derived from similar myths or stories and feel both familiar and original. Le Nguyen alters the tales he tells in The Magic Fish some to fit the larger plot of the book, but his alterations are done smartly and with grace.

Bonus Factor: Tami Taylor Award for Awesome Motherhood

Friday Night Light's Tami Taylor at a football game

Tiến’s mom is a wonderful mother who does her best to help her son find happiness even while struggling with some devastating issues of her own. I loved discovering her story alongside Tiến’s and the fairy tales.

Anti-Bonus Factor: “Confusing Feelings”

Tiến attends a religious school and is pulled aside by a priest to discuss his “confusing feelings”—i.e., the fact that he’s gay. After asking Tiến if he’s told his parents yet, and Tiến says no, the priest is relieved and tells Tiến “All the parents I’ve counseled describe the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It always feels like a death in the family.” LET ME TELL YOU I wanted to punch that priest SO HARD. (Thankfully—and this is a spoiler but I feel I need to temper this anti-bonus factor some—Tiến’s parents do not feel the way the priest supposes they will about Tiến’s sexuality.)

Relationship Status: Heart Eyes*

You’re so lovely and magical, Book, even when you’re being truthful and real. I enjoyed our time together immensely and hope that we can maintain our strong connection far into the future.

*Le Nguyen actually draws hearts in people’s eyes in The Magic Fish, and I adore him for it.

Literary Matchmaking

The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures

For another beautiful and personal graphic novel—this one an actual memoir—check out Noelle Stevenson’s The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures.

Spinning

And also Tille Walden’s Spinning.

The Prince and the Dressmaker

Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker is another lovely graphic novel of secrets and bucking societal norms with super sweet art.

Mandy (she/her) is a manager at a tech company who lives in Austin, TX, with her husband and their dogs. She loves superheroes and pretty much any show or movie with “Star” in the name.