I love that term, Magical Realism. Magical Realism added to a story brings to mind all sorts of delicious and unusual story twists, whether delightful, creepy, or just plain enchanting in a unique and unexpected way. Unexpected being the key term here.
In today’s climate of publishing, especially the children’s and young adult realm where vampires, werewolves, fairies and mermaids have been the staple for a decade now, a reader might say that any book with a supernatural twist falls under the category of “magical realism”. You might even put ghosts into that category, as well as super-powers, or creatures raised from the dead; zombies, the undead, etc.
I beg to differ. Magical Realism was coined several decades ago, but began to be more widely used in the 1990s to describe a certain type of book that hadn’t been published very much before. Up until that point, bookstores and libraries were filled with well-defined categories such as, “Contemporary” “Mystery”, “Romance”, “Western”, “Science-Fiction”, etc.
Definition of “Magical Realism”:
A story where the author creates a very normal, regular world, populated with ordinary, regular people (no Vampires or Centaurs, Klingons or Doctor Octopus) but adding a touch—mind you, just a touch—of something surreal, fantastic or bizarre that turns the story upside down while staying very much grounded in our normal, regular world setting. Magical Realism is added as an element, NOT in huge doses—but often that one magical realism element turns an otherwise regular story into something entirely different because it affects the characters and the plot in such a unique way. That one element brings an edge or slant that doesn’t line up quite right with the real world. Instead of looking at the story straight on, it makes the reader look at things in a whole different light—where the story bats its eyelashes and looks askance, perhaps almost coy—which can also help the reader understand the truths of the story in an entirely different way. This is not your average contemporary Young Adult novel or Middle-Grade story.
I love me some edgy, contemporary stories and read them a lot. I also read, and have read, widely in the paranormal and supernatural or dystopian genres. But those are not stories using Magical Realism in the Classic sense. Often readers, including teachers and librarians get Magical Realism and the Fantasy genre mixed up.
A Case Study:
I had a librarian classify my 2013 novel, When the Butterflies Came as Fantasy. But I’m sorry to say, she’s mistaken. My novel takes place in the very real world of a small town in Louisiana about a girl who has grown up on an old plantation (family home since before the Civil War). She’s got ordinary family and friends with quirks and foibles and problems. Her grandmother is a research scientist on another very real world location, an island in Micronesia. My MC is dealing with her grandmother’s recent and unexpected death, her mother’s depression, her bratty, annoying blue-haired older sister, and a touch of OCD she deals with in an effort to bring some sort of order into an otherwise disconcerting life. One aspect of the story that is not *quite* real (or is it?) concerns the unusual species of butterflies Tara Doucet’s grandmother is researching. These beautiful butterflies appear to possess extraordinary characteristics—maybe even magical. But the cultures of both Louisiana and Micronesia as well as the story’s characters are very much grounded in reality.
Here’s another great link defining Magical Realism.
Adult Magical Realism:
Reaching into the depths of my often fuzzy mind, I would have to say that the very first book I read that contained magical realism was Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, a novel that celebrated its 21th birthday this last September and is still selling well in hardcover as well as paperback, audio, and Kindle. Esquivel mischievously appropriates the techniques of magical realism to make her heroine of the story, Tita’s, contact with food sensual, emotional, and often explosive. Love, food, and magical recipes in a kitchen where the other characters’ emotions and fate are determined by the emotions of the cook. If Tita’s sad while cooking, then everybody who eats her food is melancholy and weeping. If Tita is happy while preparing a wedding feast, then her dinner guests are joyful. The magical realism element in a novel that is otherwise the story about the generations of a family on a hacienda in Mexico brings out a fresh way of looking at life and relationships. And it’s done brilliantly.
A few years later, we got the scrumptious novel, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, performing similar dreamlike plot twists through a chocolate confectioner who works her magic on an unsuspecting French village and their trials and loves and relationships.
Hmm, all this food talk is making me hungry. (*Takes break to pop a few chocolate truffles*).
What About Time Travel?
I personally believe that time travel books could fall into a sub-genre of magical realism. You may agree to disagree, but time travel books are grounded completely in an ordinary and historical world with historically based events, but then turn the story upside down by throwing their characters into a vastly different time period from their own where they must often cope with explosive events and try to get back home in one piece.
Last Example: Such is my book, The Last Snake Runner where a contemporary teenage boy of the Snake Clan ends up in 1599 in the middle of a war—trying to stay alive while fighting next to his ancestors during a 3-day battle and meeting a girl that he can’t bear to leave—while at the same time knowing he can’t remain in 1599 but has to get back to the future somehow. The events of The Last Snake Runner are based on actual events in a very real place and time period, but the time travel as well as the visions my main character has could be called Magical Realism.
My novel, The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010) is grounded in the very real but often spooky world of the Louisiana bayous with its murky waters and hidden alligators. The story is about a family in crisis and where almost everyone is hiding a secret. A Cajun folk healer, or a traiteur, gives Livie, the main character, a nine-knotted healing string that will help wake her mamma from a life-threatening coma. The traiteur sends Livie on a journey to forgive and heal her relationship with her mother—even though Mamma is unaware in a coma in the living room. Guilt and secrets and sisters underpin this story about family and forgiveness—but the ending has a bit of magical realism built in. How else could a nine-knotted healing string strung with tokens and memories of Mamma be otherwise? (Can a tiny mustard seed of faith really move mountains? That is Magical Realism at its grandest!)
Other Magical Realism titles:
NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes
TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff
NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin
A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd
BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX by Laurel Snyder
BREADCRUMBS by Ann Ursu
PRACTICAL MAGIC by Alice Hoffman (Adult novel)
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Adult novel)
Kimberley Griffiths Little is the award-winning author of middle-grade books with Scholastic, The Healing Spell (Whitney Award winner), Circle of Secrets, When the Butterflies Came, and the newly released The Time of the Fireflies (July, 2014). The first book in her Young Adult trilogy, FORBIDDEN, debuted yesterday with Harpercollins. Kimberley once survived a night in a haunted castle tower room in Scotland, makes way too many cookies when she’s revising, and the best book trailers in the universe – for reals! Check them out on Youtube and/or her website: www.kimberleygriffithslittle.com
FACEBOOK: Kimberly Griffiths Little
Amazon List of Books
Augusta Scattergood says
Kimberley’s explanation of magical realism has always been the best. And she certainly knows what she’s talking about! Her books are proof of that.
Thanks for shining a little light on the subject this morning, Caroline!
Agreed! I have to confess before meeting Kim I knew the Latin American Mystic Writers but hadn’t really heard of magical realism. This is such a comprehensive post, I asked her if I could run it here after she first ran it for our Spellbinders newsletter last spring.
Sarah M says
This was really interesting–I had never known a difference between fantasy and magical realism. I learned something new today! Chocolat is a book I have not read but own the movie on DVD, and knowing that title helped me to understand the definition a little bit better. I’ve always really enjoyed stories in this genre.
Caroline starr rose says
So glad this was helpful to you, Sarah. Like Water for Chocolate is another great book / movie example that I loved. And, of course, Kimberley’s books.
Margaret Simon says
Thanks for introducing me to Kimberly and to the definition of magical realism. Living in Louisiana and not knowing her books, I must run off to order them. With this definition, I finally have a genre category for Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery winner Flora and Ulysses. Magical realism.
Yes, to Flora and Ulysses! And yes, yes, yes, to Kimberley’s books! All Louisiana schools and homes need them.
Kimberley Griffiths Little says
Thank you so much for having me, Caroline! I love all the comments, and I love talking about magical realism books! So happy to help define – and introduce the genre! 😉