the magic fish

I know I’m not the only book lover in the world who justifies their reading purchases to themselves in creative ways [insert laughing crying emoji]. Mostly I do so by telling myself that when I’m done with it, I’ll put it in my classroom library! The only trouble is, sometimes it takes many months (or years!) for me to work my way through those books I promised were “for the kids.” That was the case with Trung Le Nguyen’s debut graphic novel The Magic Fish. I preordered it back in October 2020, and I’ve been hanging onto it at home ever since, thinking it would be my next read. It finally made it to the top of the pile over the weekend, after the last day of school for the year. I am happy to say it’s stunning and emotionally authentic, and sad that I waited so long to pick it up. And it will DEFINITELY go on the shelves in my classroom in the fall. 


the magic fish by trung le nguyen book cover
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.

The Magic Fish is a masterpiece of art and narrative. It interweaves the stories of Tiến, a Vietnamese-American boy growing up in the Midwest who doesn’t have the language or knowledge to tell his family he is gay, his mother Helen, who immigrated from Vietnam many years ago and made a life for her family in America, and various retellings of fairy tales, inflected by multiple cultures, and underpinned by gorgeous artwork of couture-inspired princess dresses. Visually, it is gorgeous, and it is also incredibly lovely in the fine crafting and interconnection of the major narratives. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in the past 10 years.


Tiến’s story is perhaps the baseline for the book, though he shares many pages (and time) with his mother Helen. They read books together in the evenings to practice their language skills. Those books are full of fairy tales, and as several of the characters remind each other, fairy tales change in the retelling – there is no one right way to tell a fairy tale. This truth mirrors the story of Helen’s immigration to America – that there is no one “true” immigration story, and that each one changes in its retelling and memory.


The two main fairy tales in The Magic Fish are Cinderella (and its close cousin Tattercoats) and The Little Mermaid. The retellings are interspersed alongside Tiến’s tension and confusion about how to express his truth to his parents, his mother’s memory of home and her longing to return to her mother, and her wish to reconnect with a past that she feels is slipping away. Author Trung Le Nguyen treats all of these strands of story with deftness and authority, and the whole is bittersweet, layered with meaning, and true in the way that sometimes only fiction can be.


One of the things that I noticed immediately in the reading was the way that color signifies a change in scenery and time-space. Blue is the palette of fairy tales, yellow the palette of the past (especially Helen’s world pre-Tiến), and red is the present for Tiến and his family. Beyond this signaling of worlds, the focus of the art is the intricately detailed linework. Seriously, it is mesmerizing and intense. The detail in the illustrations of hair alone is incredible, and then add in the dresses, crafted with couture classics in mind and with seriously magical details, flounces, and draping – it’s really unbelievable.


Of the many marvelous things about this book, the art is of course the most obvious, given the medium. But I am now intensely interested in the depth of the narrative – the symbolism of the sea, peaches, princesses, and celestial imagery, the choices in the treatment of language (Vietnamese indicated by “<>” within speech bubbles), and the afterword, which features musings on comics as an art form, and fairy tales as immigration stories. I want to teach this book – it is multimodal and rife with connections and allusions. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it again this summer and considering how I could incorporate it in my high school classes.


The Magic Fish is a profound, magical working of art and story. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Recommended for: art lovers, comic readers, those interested in the best of young adult literature, and fans of fairy tales and beautiful dresses.

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