October’s Big Picture
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
How do you tell stories within stories within stories? Ask Trung Le Nguyen, who seamlessly blends family history, fairy tales, and a 1998 coming-out tale in this remarkable intergenerational graphic novel. He does so by employing an elegant and thoughtful method: pull the strands apart, distinguish each by color, and trust the reader to braid them together meaningfully. These are worthy, memorable threads, gracefully told, through amber yellow sections that highlight Helen’s memories of a rushed exit from Vietnam right after the war, mauve pages that focus on the 1998 sections featuring Helen’s son Tien (Matthew Shepard is mentioned on the news), and royal blue entries that feature the German, Vietnamese, and Danish fairy tales that weave together Helen and Tien’s life and connect countries and eras through shared stories. All three sections are saturated with subtly varied shades of their designated hues, creating a continuity of coloration as a way to demarcate and distinguish three shifting sections for younger readers, and as a hint toward fluidity and intertextuality for readers with a bit more experience.
The overarching theme here is identity, family, and love, love that’s put to the fire when you don’t understand everything about your loved one but still is extended with grace. In Helen’s case, it is her Vietnamese family, whom she hasn’t been able to visit in many years but who are unwaveringly proud of her. In Tien’s case, it is his own parents, who are quick to reassure him that they embrace his coming out, using the fairy tales they read to each other as a way to indirectly tell him that there is a happy ending possible for him as well. For a young teen in a religious school with the weight of a country on his shoulders as a first-generation child born of immigrants, this is exactly the sort of magical, wondrous gift that might be imparted in one of those stories. The fairy tales would appear, of course, to be the least realistic, the fantastical among the starkness of life, but they are the threads, the glue that binds Helen to her birth home, child and parents to one another, and even Tien to a world that can be imagined beyond what is currently seen.
The extensive end matter in the form of a vulnerable author’s note and detailed descriptions and sketches about how the book came together add important layers, and they are engaging enough to grab readers who may generally skip over those sections. This is an experimental outing, and the creator is willing to delve into the whys and hows with his audience, luxuriating in the peek behind the scenes as an additional way of communicating, a fourth story perhaps, one final silvery thread woven among the plaits. Heartbreak and loss are universal; they exist in centuries-old oral stories put to paper, in the lives of parents, and, despite parental wishes, in the lives of their children. Yet Nguyen finds a way in the face of them to celebrate grace, resilience, and hope.
–April Spisak, BCCB reviewer
Cover illustration by Trung Le Nguyen from The Magic Fish copyright © 2020 and reproduced by permission of Random House Graphic.
Starred titles are books of special distinction. See the archives for selections from previous months.
Barnes, Derrick I Am Every Good Thing; illus. by Gordon C. James. Paulsen/Penguin, 2020 [32p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780525518778 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780525518785 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 5-7 yrs
Craft, Jerry Class Act; written and illus. by Jerry Craft. Quill Tree/Harper Collins, 2020 [256p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780062885517 $22.99
Paper ed. ISBN 9780062885500 $12.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780062885524 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 5-9
Gansworth, Eric Apple (Skin to the Core); written and illus. by Eric Gansworth and with photographs.
Levine Querido, 2020 [352p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781646140138 $18.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 9 up
Kramer, Jackie Azúa The Boy and the Gorilla; illus. by Cindy Derby. Candlewick, 2020 [48p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780763698324 $16.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 4-7 yrs
Mbalia, Kwame Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Rick Riordan/Disney Hyperion, 2020 [400p] (Tristan Strong)
Trade ed. ISBN 9781368042383 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781368068024 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 4-7
Nguyen, Trung Le The Magic Fish; written and illus. by Trung Le Nguyen.
Random House Graphic, 2020 [256p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780593125298 $23.99
Paper ed. ISBN 9781984851598 $16.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781984851611 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 6-12
Oshiro, Mark Each of Us a Desert. Tor Teen, 2020 [432p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781250169211 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781250169204 $9.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 7-12
Phelan, Matt Turtle Walk; written and illus. by Matt Phelan. Greenwillow, 2020 [32p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780062934130 $17.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 2-5 yrs
Reynolds, Jason Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel; illus. by Danica Novgorodoff.
Dlouhy/Atheneum, 2020 [208p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781534444959 $19.99
Paper ed. ISBN 9781481438261 $11.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781481438278 $8.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 6-12