Thirteen-year-old Tiến reads fairy tales to his mother, Helen, to help her practice her English as she works as a seamstress. Woven through the fairy tales are memories Helen has of immigrating with her husband. The fairy tales are variations on the story of Cinderella. The first is about a maiden named Alera who is promised to the Old Man in the Sea to repay her father’s debts. She demands three impossibly beautiful dresses as payment, then escapes his clutches after receiving them. She wakes up on a distant shore and finds a new family in the kitchens of a palace. The kind prince has a ball for his birthday, and Alera wears one of her beautiful dresses. Of course, she catches the eye of the prince.
In between reading stories Tiến attends school and tries to navigate his crush on one of his best friends, Julian. His other best friend, Claire, encourages Tiến to tell Julian and his family that he is gay, but Tiến can’t find the words to express it in Vietnamese in order to tell his parents. Outside pressures make Tiến feel ashamed of his feelings, so will he ever find the courage to tell his mother?
Tiến and his mother have a beautiful relationship despite the language barrier. As the author notes at the end, this story strives to show the complexity of the immigrant story, especially the difficulties parents and children experience when they are from different parts of the globe. The weaving of fairy tales, flashback, and present-day story is artfully done. The Magic Fish would make a great read-along with American Born Chinese in that both use fables and fairy tales interwoven with real life to express the nuances of being American and having immigrant parents
Nguyễn uses three different color palettes to express to the reader where they are. Purple is inside a fable, yellow is the memories of Tiến’s mother, and red is the present day. Additionally, Nguyễn’s illustrations are beautiful. Each of Alera’s three dresses are unique and incredibly detailed.
This is a beautiful story that's sure to be on the top of many awards lists this season.
Sara's Rating: 10/10
Suitability Level: Grades 7-12
Tags: Rating: 10/10, Suitability: Middle School, Suitability: High School, Graphic Literature, Folklore, School Age, LGBTQ+, Family, CSLA 2021
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