AngelfishAngelfish is about Robin, a young aspiring ballerina living in San Francisco. (I don’t think it gives her age, but I would guess about 14 or 15.) When she accidentally breaks a shop window, she offers to work after school for free to pay for it, rather than telling her parents and risk getting grounded before her ballet recital where she’ll be dancing the part of Beauty in Beauty and the Beast.

The owner of the fish shop (live fish, not fish to eat—as is pointed out several times!) is a grumpy man who grew up in northern China. Although he intimidates Robin at first, she quickly realizes that there’s more to him than meets the eye, and she decides that she’ll do what it takes to find out the secrets of this beast.

My daughter read this for her English class and loved it—it was the kind of book where she wandered the house with her nose stuck in it until she was done. I really enjoyed it as well. I thought the exploration of Chinese culture in San Francisco was deftly handled; it was a seamless part of the story. And I loved the running theme of Beauty and the Beast, which never felt too forced to me.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Racism, Stereotypes, and Insults

When Mr. Tsow, the shopkeeper, first meets Robin, he calls her “bunhead” because she’s a ballerina. He makes it clear that this is an insult and shows that he doesn’t think much of her. By the end of the book, she calls herself a bunhead and wears it as a mark of pride.

Robin’s father is European while her mother is from southern China. She takes after her father with light brown hair and green eyes, so people often assume she’s white. Even after she speaks Cantonese to Mr. Tsow as proof of her Chinese heritage, he tells her she’s only a half person. Because her heritage is from the south, he also says even that half of her isn’t real Chinese. He does eventually come around (most of his insults are a defense mechanism to keep people from getting close to him) and he even defends her passionately from the racism of his brother near the end of the book.

Because Robin is only just learning about her Chinese heritage since her grandmother fairly recently came to America from China, she’s confused by this distinction between northern and southern China and wonders at the racism the two groups show toward each other.


Robin’s dance partner, Thomas, teases her about her weight and her eating habits. There’s no reason to think she’s overweight, but she does seem to be sensitive about it even though she can mostly blow him off as just being rude—he has a tendency to tease everyone and joke about things too much. But I’m particularly sensitive to this as the mother of a ballet dancer.

Learning about Your Culture

Robin begins to suspect that Mr. Tsow is a former famous ballet dancer from China. In hunting down this secret, she learns a lot more about her heritage. She meets Auntie Ruby who is essentially a matchmaker, having brought her livelihood with her when she left China. Auntie Ruby feels that arranged marriages are more successful than letting young people make these important decisions on their own. She also helps families ensure that the matches their children make will respect and continue the culture they’re trying to preserve.

Robin’s grandmother needs to walk with canes because her feet were bound when she was a child. She’s a feisty old woman, though, who’s planning a trip to Vegas with the guy she refuses to call her boyfriend. She babysits for many of the families and she knows all the social circles within Chinatown. Robin is amazed by what her grandmother knows and the network of information made up of older people who grew up in China. Robin’s grandmother has been teaching her to speak Cantonese and about the history of China—these details become important as Robin unearths Mr. Tsow’s secrets. Robin’s grandmother and several other older people speak English with a British accent and terminology because they learned English in Hong Kong.

Robin learns that the proper Anglicization of “Tsow” is actually “Cao.” After this point in the novel, “Mr. Tsow” becomes “Mr. Cao.” Robin is no expert, but she’s eager to learn more. Through her, the reader learns a lot as well.

Robin’s ballet teacher is from Russia, which brings another interesting cultural angle.

Ballet is its own culture as well, one that spans centuries and continents. (The author used research done for a ballet movie he worked on but which was never filmed as inspiration for the novel.)


Mr. Cao walks with a limp. Robin learns that this is because he was attacked during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because his dancing was seen as supporting Western culture. They cut the toes off one of his feet, ensuring that he could never dance again. The whole story as it comes out is devastating and depressing.


Robin’s parents work a lot. She insisted that they have dinner together a few times a week because that’s the only way they would see each other. She’s afraid they’ll ground her, so it’s easier to just hide things from them—which isn’t all that hard to do, because they’re not paying much attention. Her little brother is pretty much just an annoyance. Her family isn’t bad—they’re supportive for the most part, they come to her recital—but they’re preoccupied with their own things. She pays no consequences for hiding things from them, either.

Robin is much closer to her grandmother who has a much sharper eye—it’s a lot harder to get anything past her. Her grandmother tends to side with her, agreeing not to tell her parents about the broken window and helping her with the quest to find out about Mr. Cao. Her love and respect for her grandmother has also translated into wanting to learn more about the culture of her grandmother.

Mr. Cao’s brother is awful. He blames Mr. Cao for ruining their lives in China because he was targeted by the Cultural Revolution. He insisted that Mr. Cao give up dance and art and anything other than the business of running the fish shop. Mr. Cao’s nephew has no interest in learning anything about his heritage.

Family is what you make of it. In the end, Mr. Cao decides that the family of dance is more important than the family of his blood. Yes, he owes some debt to his blood family because of what they went through, but he also owes a debt to the teachers and others in his dance family. He decides to follow that one, helping Robin’s dance school put on their recital. He quits the job at his brother’s fish store, getting a better paying job at a rival fish store.

Self Esteem

Robin doesn’t think much of her talent at ballet, frequently mentioning that she’s clumsy. When Mr. Cao teaches her Tai Chi, she’s certain that her clumsiness will make him wince. However, it’s clear that her teacher and Mr. Cao both see great potential in her. She’s better than she gives herself credit for, and others are happy to teach her and work with her, even though she’s constantly scared of letting them down. You have to read between the lines to see how hard she is on herself, though.


There’s a spiritual aspect to any kind of artistic expression. When Robin is learning Tai Chi, there’s definitely a spiritual aspect to it. She and Mr. Cao explicitly discuss it, and then later she feels a similar spiritual connection in her dancing.


I really enjoyed the book. It deals with some tough issues, but since they’re in the past they aren’t so hard to handle. Robin is a great narrator—easy to identify with and empathize with, without getting too angsty. The metaphors of Beauty and the Beast and the angelfish are handled well. The ending was tied up just a bit too neatly for me, but I was willing to forgive that. I’d recommend it for ages 10 and up, and particularly to young ballet dancers. My 13yo ballet dancer really loved it.

NOTE: Getting ready to post this review, I learned that Angelfish is the third book about Robin, after Ribbons and The Cook’s Family. Although there were references to things that happened in those books, I didn’t feel like they were at all necesssary to understand Angelfish. Based on reviews, it sounds like Ribbons isn’t the best introduction to Robin and her family, so I’m glad I started with Angelfish.


Angelfish by Laurence Yep
Published in 2001 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Third in a series
Read a hardback borrowed from my daughter’s English class

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