Review: The Magic Fish by Trung le Nguyen

The Magic Fish by Trung le Nguyen cover shows a boy with glasses and a patched jacket looking at an open book. In the background is an illustration of a mermaid.

The Magic Fish
Trung le Nguyen
Random House Graphic
Published October 13, 2020

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About The Magic Fish

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 on Goodreads

My Review

One of the things this book does so cleverly is clue the reader into the different threads of the story with the color of its panels. There are different timelines and stories all being told at the same time. In the present, Tiến is figuring out his feelings for a fellow classmate and how to tell his parents he’s gay.

His mom shares memories of her own life, and later, her journey back to Vietnam to visit her family. In the midst of these stories, in Tiến’s family, they share a lot of stories with one another. For example, in some scenes, he reads fairytales to his mom. In others, his mother listens while her aunt tells her a fairytale. Each of those threads– Tiến’s perspective, his mom’s perspective, and the fairytales are color-coded so that the background of the panels is one color.

That way when the story switches to a different thread, the panels change color. It’s pretty genius. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that, and I have to say it made the story really easy to follow.

Another thing that I really liked is the fairytales themselves. I loved the choices the author made in terms of what the settings looked like for those stories– that’s something we kind of take for granted in reading fairytales in text, I think. But it’s really clear that the author made very purposeful, carefully considered choices about the clothes and backgrounds of each of the tales. I loved that.

The author’s note points up the fact that cultures all over the world have their own versions of tales like Cinderella. For some of those stories, like Cinderella, the western version wasn’t even the first version of the story. I loved that the author points this out in the note at the end of the book.


So I feel like I talked a lot about the setup and background of the story, but let me say that I also really enjoyed reading THE MAGIC FISH. They way Tiến wrestles with what to say to his family felt very real. I love the way his family used stories to bond with and communicate with each other.

There’s something really special about a story that can transcend genre and tell a transcendent story as well. I think THE MAGIC FISH does that beautifully.

The Magic Fish on Bookshop

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Tiến is gay and Vietnamese American. His best friend Claire is Black.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content
Tiến has a crush on a boy.

Spiritual Content
A priest speaks to Tiến about his feelings. We only see the beginning of the conversation, but it’s clear he says some deeply homophobic things.

Fairytales contain magic and spirits. One is about the grandfather of the sea, a man who rides on the back of a skeleton and tries to claim a girl for his bride. Others contain mermaids. In one animals speak to humans.

Violent Content
Brief references to prison camps in Vietnam. Some of the fairytales have some dark themes or scenes. In one, a woman stabs another through her heart. A woman unknowingly consumes a meal made from her daughter. A tipped over container of the soup shows it contained human bones.

Drug Content

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

2 Responses to Review: The Magic Fish by Trung le Nguyen

  1. I’m really glad you liked this book. I’ve lots of good things about it, and it’s on my TBR list.