If you like your fairy tales dark, and reading other cultural versions of them, read this book! If you like your graphic novels lush, detailed, and darling, read this book! If you like compelling family stories, immigrant stories, and queer characters, read this book!
In the forefront of Trung Le Nguyen’s graphic novel is the story of a middle schooler named Tiên who is quietly dealing with coming out and his crush on a friend. Alongside that is his mother’s story, a Vietnamese immigrant who is processing her past as well as the recent grief of her present. In the background are the fairy tales Tiên and his mother share – stories that will be familiar to those who know the western fairy tales, but showcased through a Vietnamese lens.
I find the graphic novel immensely satisfying in all three parts. I came to it for the fairy tales – it features three of them, and two are my favorites: “Donkeyskin” and “The Little Mermaid.” The third is a wildly dark Vietnamese Cinderella story (“Tấm and Cám”) – think “Cinderella” with a “Juniper Tree” twist. The fairy tales are beautifully narrated and exquisitely drawn! If you know “Donkeyskin,” you know that fashion is integral to it, and the heroine’s gowns are truly magical!
And they connect neatly to the contemporary* stories of its two main characters. Tiên and his mother have a lovely, pure connection not only through stories but through their daily interactions. The middle school friendships are adorable and I just love how the author/artist illustrates Tiên’s crush on Julian. We also see flashes back to his mother’s past, trying to emigrate after the war, and her journey back home when a loved one passes. Different hues portray the three timelines.
And as icing on the cake, Trung Le Nguyen provides thorough end notes detailing his process in creating the book!
To me it’s the perfect book!
*The contemporary story is actually set in the 1990s.
Here’s a page from “The Little Mermaid,” and one from Tiên’s story: