Magical realism in children’s literature: what is it?
As a writer in the genre of magical realism, I am often greeted with one two reactions: “Oh, I love magical realism!” or “What the heck is magical realism?” If your reaction skews toward the latter, you’re in luck. This blog post is for you.
While magical realism can exist in any artistic endeavor such as painting, film, or theater, I will be focusing on children’s literature, specifically middle grade novels. The best place to start is to compare magical realism to its nearest genres, realistic fiction and fantasy.
What is realistic fiction?
Stories that resemble real life fall into this genre. The characters are people you could actually meet (no zombies, vampires, or the like), live in places that are or could be real, and experience events that could actually take place in the real world. The plot and themes involved are those we could all face in everyday life including love, death, friendship, and anything else that depicts our society. Wonder by R.J. Palacio addresses family and school issues with themes of kindness and empathy. In the book, Aggie wishes he could find a magic lamp that would grant him the wish of having a normal face. That doesn’t happen because the book is realistic fiction. See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng is a road trip novel with themes of resilience and love. In the book, Alex wants to communicate with aliens. That doesn’t happen because the book is realistic fiction. You get the idea.
What is fantasy?
Stories that include creatures, abilities, or settings that do not exist in the real world fall into this genre. Here is where you will encounter your zombies and vampires. Mythical creatures and enchanted beasts abound, as do mystical items like wands and amulets. The location can be a magical realm within the real world as in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling or in an entirely exotic and separate world seen in high fantasy works like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. These books integrate the paranormal, tend to be epic in scale, and assail their characters with potentially world-altering dilemmas.
While there are great novels in both categories, and as a reader I enjoy well-told stories in any genre, each type has obvious limitations. Fantasy provides escapism and marvel but often bears little relation to the actual lives of children. Realistic fiction obviously doesn’t have that problem, but its adherence to stark reality lacks the true magic of childhood.
There is a wonderful way around both problems and it is the genre of magical realism. So yes, I’ve finally gotten to the point. Thanks for sticking with me.
What the heck is magical realism?
At its core, magical realism is realistic fiction with a fantastical element. The story takes place in the real world and all real world rules apply with the notable exception of the magical element, which has its own internal logic. The characters are ordinary people involved in everyday activities and the magical element is integrated into the story as believable or at least plausible. The fantastical element is not explained; you just accept it as part of the story. Typically, it affects a character who experiences an alternate reality from everyone else.
In adult literature, notably by Gabriel García Márquez, the fantastical element does not drive the story. In middle grade novels with magical realism, it almost always does. So does this mean that middle grade novels aren’t really magical realism? I’ll let literary critic Luis Leal clear this up:
“If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.”
See what he did there? For magical realism to exist, you have to define it, but if you can define it, then it isn’t magical realism. Contradicting realities form the basis of magical realism, so in making no sense, this quote makes perfect sense.
Some people think this all may be a bit too deep for children. I disagree.
Real life is weird and inexplicable and the world that children experience is, to them, even more bewildering. Something absurd and mind-boggling doesn’t make less sense than real life; it is real life. Children know when they’re being lied to and telling children that life can be explained rationally is the biggest whopper of them all.
You can get lost in a monotonous life of logical, explainable facts, or you can accept the wonder and insanity of the universe. Magical realism exposes the astonishing in the prosaic. It accentuates the incredible in everyday life. Because of the magical element, the protagonist will do extraordinary things without really being able to explain it. I think most children can relate to this perfectly well.
Maybe a few examples would help.
Thank you, bolded voice. I thought you’d never ask.
In practically every book by Roald Dahl, some extraordinary thing is presented as though it is the simplest, most reasonable thing in the world. In James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphaned boy living with his horrid aunts. Life is bleak until James comes across an old man with a bag of crocodile tongues, which leads to a journey inside a giant peach. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie lives with his parents and four grandparents in a small house. They are poor, hungry, and eking out a miserable existence. But after finding a golden ticket, Charlie enters the marvelous world of the chocolate factory replete with Oompa-Loompas and a chocolate river. Not all of Roald Dahl’s books fit into the magical fiction genre, but magic is always present to reveal the remarkable in the banal.
Other great examples I recommend checking out are When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and Skellig by David Almond.
In Jake, Lucid Dreamer by David J. Naiman (yes, this is my book), Jake distances himself from his family and friends for many years after his mother’s death until he becomes a lucid dreamer and experiences magical adventures in his dreams. Confronting the fantastic within himself helps him unearth buried feelings, heal emotionally, and reconnect with the world.
In describing the extraordinary as ordinary, writers of magical realism elevate ordinary to the extraordinary. These novels put the fantastic back into the world where it’s been all along, hiding in the mundane, waiting to be recognized.
These books aren’t just for children, of course. We can all use a splash of magic in our lives.
David J. Naiman writes magical realism for children under his own name and humorous medical fiction for adults under his pen name, David Z Hirsch. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two sons.