MMGM and #IMWAYR (10/19/2020): The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (plus a GIVEAWAY of 3 copies!)
For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending (and GIVING AWAY 3 copies of!!!) one of the most stunning books I've ever read in my entire life, a graphic novel called The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. I realize this review breaks my alternation between MG and YA reviews, but I loved this book so much that I couldn't wait to talk about it!
Although the Amazon page for this book says it is YA, I would say it is substantially closer to MG that YA readers will enjoy than YA that MG readers will enjoy. There's nothing inappropriate except for a few slightly violent illustrations, which really aren't that bad.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of this book, I want you all to know that I discovered this book (along with Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, as a matter of fact) at a virtual panel at San Diego Comic-Con @ Home over the summer (remember when I was recommending all those panels?) about LGBTQIA+ representation in comics and animation for young people. I'm telling you this because I want you to understand that this book, a debut graphic novel from an almost-brand-new imprint (Random House Graphic), is a book that I have been waiting for, desperately, for 3 months until this past Tuesday, when it released. I have never waited that long for a debut book in my entire life. During the wait, I basically decided that this book was going to be so good that it would become one of my new favorites of all time. Was having such expectations likely going to set this book up for failure? Obviously. But did the book meet them? Oh, it blew them out of the water. Let me tell you why.
The Magic Fish is really five stories (yes, five) in one book. The most important story is of Tiến, a 13-year-old boy in the 1990s whose parents immigrated from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Tiến and his mother, Helen, often read fairy tales aloud to each other, in part to help Helen practice her English (she mostly speaks Vietnamese, unlike Tiến) and in part because they both enjoy them. Tiến's parents not having excellent English would not be much of an issue, except that it is, because Tiến is gay, and he doesn't even know how to tell them. (There isn't a word for "gay" in Vietnamese at the time the story is set.) Tiến's mother, Helen, is dealing with her own struggles: escaping from the Vietnam War was a traumatic experience, and she also feels disconnected both from her family back in Vietnam, who she wants Tiến to meet, and from her son, who she senses is keeping something from her. Tiến's and Helen's stories are the most important stories of the book, but there are three more: three different fairy tales that Tiến and Helen read or hear during the course of the story. The fairy tales are nothing like Tiến's and Helen's lives, except that they are, and they just might be the key to helping both Tiến and Helen overcome their struggles.
So, I need to address something first. As a book reviewer, I always want people to find books on my blog, so I always try to recommend fun and enjoyable stories (like last week's The Deep & Dark Blue) to people who want to read them. The problem is, I worry that I get so enthusiastic in my reviews that then, when I encounter books that are truly stunning, that are truly books that I will have on my bookshelf (cover facing out, not hidden) for the rest of my life, I will be unable to make it clear to you just how much more absolutely jaw-droppingly stunning they are than the books that I usually review. (If you have any tips/relatable ranting on that, please leave it in the comments below—I need it!) The Magic Fish is a book that is so much more special than other books, that is so much more gorgeous and heartwarming and heartbreaking and ambitious and unique than other books, that I am shocked that the stars aligned to where it actually exists and I am lucky enough to hold it in my hands. This book is as heartwarming as (if not more than) The List of Things That Will Not Change, and this book is even more original and just as beautiful as Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. This is the book I have been waiting for, this is the book you have been waiting for, and this is the book that I made this blog for. This is a book that I need—need—you all to read.
Something you might have been thinking (I'll be honest, I thought it too) is, "Isn't this an ambitious story for a debut graphic novelist?" Yes, it is. Most accomplished authors would not be able to tie together five different stories into a cohesive whole in which every story ties back to the main themes and threads while standing apart as its own beautiful entity. That's why I am stunned that Trung Le Nguyen pulled this off on the first try. In The Magic Fish, fairy tales are the connecting thread. They bring Tiến and Helen together and are just one wonderful piece of their beautifully close relationship. They bridge the language gap that is an inherent part of the story—two fairy tales are different versions of the story of Cinderella, with one being Vietnamese, and it's truly amazing to see these stories remind us how truly similar all people are and how beautiful our differences can be. Fairy tales help Helen see that she is far from the only person who has journeyed far from what she ever knew and wondered if it was worth it, and they help Tiến see that he is far from the only person who has had a secret just bursting to get out but that could ruin everything he wants. We often see ourselves in stories, but we rarely see characters in stories see themselves in stories, which is just part of what makes this book so original. And the fairy tales in this story are just delightful in general—the two Cinderella adaptations as well as an adaptation of the Little Mermaid are bursting with unique character all their own while hitting the main points of the stories precisely. Some of the fairy tales are more "sanitized" and modern, and others are more dark and unnerving (like most fairy tales actually were), but they are all wonderful. You will be as invested in each fairy tale as you are in Tiến and Helen, and you will be as thrilled by the attention to detail (in one fairy tale, before one character kisses another, he asks for consent! Consent! Huzzah!) as I was!
Let me talk about Tiến and Helen for a minute. Tiến is one of those rare protagonists who you instantly are rooting for and think is just the most wonderful person in existence (or at least, fiction-existence). Tiến is a regular 13-year-old boy, not some intentionally-wise-or-thoughtful character of a person, yet, just like real kids are, he is in fact wise and thoughtful and insightful. In other words, he talks like any other kid, but he knows just as much as kids and adults do. He is kind to his friends, he enjoys stories like every one of us does (there's one panel of him reading in bed with a flashlight, which I looked at while literally sitting in bed with a booklight), and his relationship with his mother Helen is just beautiful, with tension never getting in the way of love and acceptance and compassion. Helen is just as amazing as well. You don't normally have a parent acting as a main character in an MG book, and yet Helen takes center stage in The Magic Fish as well. She cares so, so much about Tiến and wants the best for him. She is utterly in touch with how he is feeling and what he needs. Helen has memories of war that haunt her, she feels guilt for leaving her family behind and wants to reunite with them, and she fears that she is not doing right by Tiến, a fear that every parent can relate to but that most kids (except those reading The Magic Fish) are utterly unaware of. Tiến and Helen are brave, and thoughtful, and sweet, and you will fall in love with both of them over the course of this gorgeous book.
Oh, I forgot to say anything about Tiến being gay. Well, that can have its own paragraph. As I mentioned earlier, Tiến doesn't even know how to explain to his parents that he is gay, largely because it is difficult to explain that in Vietnamese. In addition, it's the 1990s in this book, so it isn't exactly the most welcoming time to come out—and of course, there is never a truly welcoming time to come out. Tiến fears that his parents might not love him anymore, and he doesn't want to give them any more stress than they already have (see the previous paragraph). Tiến is fortunate to have two friends, Claire and Julian, who accept him as he is and want him to enjoy things like school dances as much as they do (although things are slightly complicated by the fact that Tiến has a crush on Julian). But that certainly doesn't make things easy. Tiến's experience being gay is depicted incredibly thoughtfully and touchingly—although it's just one of many focal points of this book, it is far more than just a superficial detail, and it makes this book even better.
I've already discussed many details of The Magic Fish, but something you might be wondering is how exactly this all comes together. And to explain that, I need to discuss this book's art. Author/illustrator Trung Le Nguyen has a gorgeous art style that is all his own. Describing it is an exercise in contrasts: it is immensely detailed except when it is casual and adorable, it conveys stability (like a snapshot) except when it conveys motion, it looks nothing like any other art style but readers of other graphic novels will feel right at home with it...I could go on, but I realize none of those sentences have any meaning to you, so please just go to the Amazon page and look at the example images. One thing I can say confidently is that there is a unique emphasis on parallel lines (especially with people's hair), which is an aesthetically pleasing detail. The Magic Fish's pages are essentially color-coded (hooray for neat freaks like me!): Tiến and Helen's story in the present day is drawn with a reddish-pink color ("watermelon" would be the best descriptor), Helen's memories from the past are drawn in an ochre-yellow color, and the fairy tales (except for a few accented objects) are drawn in deep indigo. The colors give each story its own unique feel while also making them easy to distinguish, thus preventing a lot of the confusion you might expect from a book with five stories (although I should say, the three fairy tales are told in sequence, one after another, so you don't have to juggle all of their details in your mind at once).
It's amazing that I have described so many amazing things about The Magic Fish and still not captured what makes it so utterly special. So I'll try one last time, ignoring your cries of "Please just end this review!" The Magic Fish deals with a lot of heavy topics, and it imbues each with plenty of depth and beauty. But it also distills them down to their barest essentials, not wasting any time on extraneous detail (after all, with five stories in 227 pages, you don't have much time to waste). This means that readers see the pain that both Tiến and Helen are feeling, but that it is never dwelled on. What is instead dwelled on are the feelings of joy, whether that joy is from family, friendships, or stories. This book is such a warm, uplifting book that, when I started reading it on Tuesday, I woke up in the middle of the night and was so full of joy and glee that this book existed and I was reading it that I was barely able to quiet my mind enough to go back to sleep! I have never felt as happy reading a book as I felt reading The Magic Fish: to be honest, I felt so happy that it was a bit disconcerting (it's rare to feel that much joy during 2020, after all). The Magic Fish isn't just a good book, and it isn't just a great book, and it isn't just a favorite book: it's a book that is so unique, so full of feeling, so daring, and so sweet that you didn't think its existence was even possible. Apparently it was possible, though, because it exists, and it is every bit as amazing as you could possibly hope. I am not going to ask you to read The Magic Fish, because it isn't optional: this book is now on your reading list (I have put it there by executive blogging power), and if you have at all gotten the message from this review, you should be as excited to read this book as I am for you all to read this book! Get your hopes up: for once, they will not be disappointed.
Update (11/30/2020): My rating is: Stunning!
Update (2/6/2021): My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!
Because I am awesome (or as autocorrect literally just told me, "awesomized"), and because I am so desperately hoping that you will all read this book, I am giving away not one, not two, but three brand-new copies of The Magic Fish! I sincerely hope that, if the promise of a great book was not enough, the potential promise of a great free book will be enough to get you to read this book. (And no, I'm not sponsored by the publisher or anyone else.) Here are the terms of the giveaway:
- If you win, your book will come to you directly from Amazon.
- I am giving away three (3) unsigned paperback copies of The Magic Fish.
- Each entrant is only eligible to win one (1) copy of The Magic Fish.
- Entrants must have mailing addresses in the United States or Canada.
- Enter using the Google Form below, NOT the comments.
- Winners will be selected randomly.
- You must enter an email address so that I can contact you via email for a mailing address if you win. I will not keep or share your email address or mailing address.
- Please, please, PLEASE give me an email address that you check regularly (including spam/junk), as I will choose a new winner if you do not respond to my initial email within 48 hours.
- You must also enter a nickname for me to post on my blog if you win; it does not need to be your real name (although it can be if you want).
- The last full day to enter this giveaway is Monday, October 26, 2020
(tomorrow if you're reading this on Monday)(sorry—that was a typo), as I will close the giveaway form the morning of Tuesday, October 27, 2020.
- If you are reading this post in your email, click on the post title to open it in your browser and view the entry form below.
I look forward to seeing entrants in the giveaway and to spreading the joy that is The Magic Fish to three lucky readers!