Tiến and his mom speak different languages. Can their mutual love of fairy tales help them find their voices?
Trung Le Nguyen’s graphic novel, The Magic Fish, follows a strict color code. Real life is red, or rose. Fairy tales are blue. What yellow means isn’t revealed right way, but those are basically the three colors that appear in this book.
When Tiến thinks about his friend, Julian, he’s blue, not red – a fantasy versus someone he could be with in real life. His friend, Claire, is the only person Tiến’s come out to, but when it comes to Julian and his parents, Tiến doesn’t know what to say. With his parents, though, it’s quite literal. Their first language is Vietnamese and Tiến doesn’t know what words to use to tell them that he’s gay.
“I read that it happens sometimes,” Tiến tells Claire, after listing some of his worst fears for how they might respond. Tiến isn’t looking to the internet for answers. The Magic Fish takes place in the 90s. Where he does go is the library to check out books.
Every night he and his mom read fairy tales. While it’s possible Tiến picked up a newspaper or two, it’s fiction that acts as his biggest source of information and that’s why books like The Magic Fish are so integral. Just because the situation’s fantastic doesn’t mean Tiến and his mom can’t relate to the characters, and it’s not lost on Tiến that all of the fairy tales are about straight couples.
Fairy tales and real life aren’t the same thing. It’s right there in big letters (by letterer, Patrick Crotty) on the back of the book: “Real life isn’t a fairy tale,” and there’s an honesty to “The Magic Fish” that doesn’t ignore the fact that things don’t always magically work out for Tiến’s family. However, things don’t always magically work out in fairy tales either. It’s like the happy endings make people forget all the terrible things that happened first but Trung Le Nguyen (or Trungles) remembers. The first fairy tale Tiến reads includes a character called the Old Man of the Sea who rises from the sea, naked, on the shoulders of a skeleton. It’s a horrifying sight.
Tiến and his mom don’t just relate to the dark side of fairy tales, though. Tiến’s parents are in love. It’s amazing how much stories train you to expect the worst when a father’s not around – that he’s divorced or an absentee father – but with Tiến’s dad there’s no negative connotation at all. His job keeps different hours. It also feels unusual for a book geared towards teens to be narrated by an adult but that’s how The Magic Fish begins, with Tiến’s mom acting as the narrator. Instead of parents being unknowable, Trungles makes them people, too. Tiến isn’t the only one determined to communicate. Tiến’s mom is trying, too.
Except Tiến didn’t have a book like The Magic Fish at his disposal. Now people will and hopefully this means The Magic Fish will end up in libraries everywhere. From stars appearing at magical moments, to princess hair that somehow fits under a cap when needed, Trungles’ art style is enchanting and the backmatter is full of sketches and information about his inspirations.
The Magic Fish goes on sale October 13th from Random House Graphic.