I’m With the Banned is a series that aims to promote books that have been recently challenged as unsuitable for young readers, giving parents and readers a deeper understanding of the themes involved. This blog post is focused on The Magic Fish, Trung Le Nguyen's debut graphic novel.
In the last few months of 2021, two massive banned book lists were released in Florida and Texas. Over a hundred titles were called into question in Indian River County, FL, when the local Moms of Liberty chapter submitted a list of 156 titles to the school board to remove from school libraries. According to the group, all the titles on the list were inappropriate for children due to pornographic material or Critical Race Theory (CRT). Soon after, Texas representative Matt Krause drew up a list of 850 titles for schools to review. More nebulous than the Florida list, Krause wanted to audit any titles that might “make students feel discomfort.”
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen was on both these lists.
About The Magic Fish
The Magic Fish is about an immigrant family with a lot of practical problems that come with being first- generation immigrants. One of these problems is a language barrier between family members. Tien was born in America and primarily speaks English while his parents primarily speak Vietnamese, especially his mother. This issue reaches a crux when Tien wants to tell his mother that he’s gay, but he doesn’t know how to tell her in Vietnamese. Instead, they circuitously communicate with each other through fairy tales that they borrow from their local library.
This graphic novel focuses on identity—especially for the characters Tien and his mother Hien. While Tien struggles with how to tell his mother that he is gay, Hien struggles with her identity as she assimilates into American culture. Both these characters navigate this process through fairy tales. Initially started as a way for Hien to practice her English, the fairy tales help her with PTSD from her immigration as well as who she is as a first-generation immigrant in America. She mourns that she and her son have distinct cultures, but also that through learning English, she is losing hers. This crisis of identity is exacerbated when she can’t remember the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, and her mother dies before meeting Tien. Hien must reconcile who she is now with her past.
Meanwhile, Tien knows he is gay, but he doesn’t know how to tell his mother. Literally. He doesn’t know the words for it in Vietnamese. He also recognizes the struggles his family is facing, as well as the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community at large. His problems seem so minor compared to theirs. Unfortunately, Tien is outed to his mother after dancing with another boy at school. Ashamed and embarrassed, Tien listens to Hien change the end of a fairy tale from its heteronormative conclusion to a romantic ending between two princesses. By telling this story, Hien assures her son that he is loved and accepted, despite the language barrier.
The fairy tales communicated between mother and son are integral to the story, and Nguyen weaves them throughout beautifully. Each story is relevant to the characters and brings important moments or feelings into sharp relief. The artwork of The Magic Fish enhances this through its style and use of color. A blend of Western and Vietnamese artistic style, there are at least three storylines occurring in this book at the same time (present, past, fairy tale), and Nguyen’s use of single colors for each one really helps separate everything out to avoid any muddling or confusion, especially for younger readers.
Why is it banned?
As I was reading The Magic Fish, I kept waiting for the lightbulb moment of “Aha! That’s why it’s banned!” Many LGBTQ+ graphic novels are being called into question because of sexually explicit scenes, which, taken out of context, can be misconstrued as pornography. But this book didn’t have any—neither in description nor artwork. There isn’t even a single kiss, just two boys dancing at a party, and one of the boys is straight. Even through the lens of Critical Race Theory (another common reason for banning), there is nothing that would warrant concern. The Magic Fish is actually a sweet book filled with hope for both central characters. It is also a positive entry to the LGBTQ+ narrative because Tien’s queerness isn’t just a quirky characteristic thrown in for entertainment’s sake. The only explanation I could find for banning this book is that one of the central characters is, well... gay.
Unfortunately, a lot of books are being banned more as a political statement than for their actual content. The Magic Fish is one of those books caught in the large net of political groups trying to, as Krause said in his letter, eliminate any discomfort in any student. According to PEN America, an organization advocating for the freedom of expression in literature, 96% of book bans are arising from school boards/administrations instead of by members of a community. They state: “In the past, whereas a single book may have been challenged by a single parent, the challenges this year came from organized groups and can contain tens to hundreds of challenged titles. This large volume of challenges overwhelms the system and intimidates the administration.” This is resulting in schools removing books as a preventative measure, instead of through the request of a parent, or simply because they don’t have the time or means to audit each book individually.
Krause’s 850-title list is still being evaluated by Texas school districts, but for the schools in Indian River County, The Magic Fish remains on the shelves.