Graphic Novel Review: The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. RH Graphic, 2020. 9781984851598. 229 pages of comics plus an author’s not, an essay on creating the graphic novel, and some pages of bonus artwork.

At the center of this story are Tién (13) and his mother. Tién speaks mostly English; his mother speaks mostly Vietnamese. As Tién reads a version of Cinderella to his mother, she thinks about saying goodbye to her mother when she and her husband fled Vietnam. Later Tién’s mother travels to Vietnam after his grandmother dies, and as she questions her identity and mourns, her auntie tells her a different version of the myth. (Back in the US, Tién’s crush on his friend Julian is noticed during a school dance, and he’s sent to counseling, to talk to a priest who tells him he’s going to break his mother’s heart. And once Tién’s mother returns home, the school takes the decision to come out to his mom out of Tién’s hands. But they share another story, a beautiful retelling of The Little Mermaid, that lets Tién know she loves and accepts him.

Nguyen has a gift for depicting how hard it is for a kid and their mother to communicate when they speak different first languages and were raised in different cultures. I’ve never seen a book do this before, and it’s wonderful. Equally beautiful are the illustrations, particularly the way each tale has its own design and fashion sense. (The pages at the end give Nguyen space to explain his choices.)

This is the best graphic novel I’ve read this year, and one that I know everyone in my family will enjoy.


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