Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Heather Murphy Capps
Heather Murphy Capps has always had a deep appreciation for comfort and elegance. She and Claudia would have run out of money quickly together but would absolutely have been on the same page about taxis and nice restaurants. And of course, solving mysteries about beautiful art. That said, Heather also appreciates Jamie’s love of complication, which is why she spent several years living in rural Kenya and then became a television news reporter, which involved standing for hours in the middle of hurricanes and political battles. Now she’s raising middle grade readers and writing for them. She loves to read and write books with lots of great science, magic, mystery, and adventure. Heather is an #ownvoices author and committed to creating more diversity in publishing.

Putting It into Perspective: Multiple Points of View in MG

In a graduate writing program I did years ago, a highlight of each residency was the chance to pitch our manuscripts to attending agents. Once, I was nervously pitching my book to a Very Famous Agent. When I mentioned that it was written in three alternating viewpoints, Very Famous Agent interrupted and said, “Why’d you have to do that? Single perspective books are ALWAYS better, ALWAYS easier to sell!”

Umm, ouch…pitch session pretty much over! Afterwards I had a lot of doubt about my choice to show multiple viewpoints. But with the number of high-quality, successful multiple viewpoint MG novels available to readers—both then and now—I ultimately chalked up that pitch session to a lasting reminder that agents have individualized passions about books. Maybe a particular agent has sold more single viewpoint novels, but that certainly doesn’t mean singular POV is always better.

Like many elements of writing, the number of points of view you use to tell the story depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Certainly, writing a book in multiple viewpoints has some challenges you don’t experience with a single viewpoint:

  1. Each POV character must be made clear to the reader with every switch in perspective.
  2. Each POV character’s storyline must be memorable enough to the reader to “survive” the interruption of another viewpoint.
  3. Since your POV character is usually the one your reader gets to know most intimately through your careful character development, adding viewpoints tends to add characterization work for you.

From these challenges, it might seem like multiple viewpoint novels are harder on both the reader and the writer!

But there’s no denying that some stories just wouldn’t be as effective without multiple viewpoints. Sometimes you need to show an event that your main character doesn’t attend or info he/she wouldn’t know. Sometimes it’s important to show more than one side of the story, to demonstrate the importance of differences in opinion. Sometimes you might want your reader to be the only one who knows everything, giving him or her the chance to solve a mystery or identify a villain first—always a reader thrill.

Many excellent MG novels serve as examples of multiple viewpoints, and I hope you’ll offer your favorites in the comments. These titles each employ multiple viewpoints for different uses:

Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer. The narrative is divided between two first-person storytellers, Sophie and Cody. On first meeting Sophie, the reader finds her to be a vivacious, lighthearted dreamer, immediately likable in her innocence and intent to sail the Atlantic with family members. But when Cody picks up the story and shares his thoughts about Sophie’s behavior, the reader realizes that Sophie is a much more complex character than first assumed—that, in fact, she’s a girl not ready to face a past tragedy. Because Sophie cannot let her internal conflict rise to the surface of her own mind for most of the book, a second point of view character is used to give the reader the clues and information they need to see all true sides of Sophie, even before she’s ready to see them herself.

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s. This book is a great study in tense as well as point of view. The book opens in main character Willow’s first person point of view, in present tense; consequently, we are already close to this very likable character on the afternoon she learns her parents have been killed. The author then uses past tense first-person to relay Willow’s backstory in the following chapters, but returns to present tense at the moment in the narrative that has led back to the accident, signified by a chapter appropriately titled “Back in the Now.” The really interesting thing, though, is that each of the other point-of-view characters who “chime” in to help tell parts of the story do so in third-person, and consistently in past tense. So even though each additional voice is clearly characterized and has a need to insert his or her part of the narrative at the given time, the reader remains closest to Willow and her first person immediacy. Each of those secondary voices confesses at various points the extent to which they care about Willow, in a slow build of compounded concern that ultimately parallels our own.

Rebecca Stead’s First Light.  In this example of multiple viewpoints, two characters alternate the telling of two seemingly distinct stories – they are in separate physical locations and don’t know each other. Peter and Thea each have their own concerns and conflicts, each trying to solve a set of mysterious circumstances. When finally the two meet—and their narratives align—about 2/3 of the way through the book, it’s a fulfilling thrill for the reader. The story ratchets up in intensity as the two begin a changed journey together.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. I think a lot of the genius of Wonder stands on its use of point of view. If we as readers had heard from no one but Auggie throughout the entire story, it would have been a beautiful and well-crafted book. But with the inclusion of other viewpoints – his sister Via and her new friend Justin, Auggie’s schoolmates Summer and Jack,  Via’s friend Miranda—the story is helped along by those around Auggie, some of whom have known him his whole life, others who meet him only once he takes the brave leap to attend school at Beecher Prep. The first time I read Wonder, I was so taken with Auggie’s voice that when it switched to Via in Part 2 I had a moment of “What? Wait! Go back to Auggie!” But as R.J. Palacio indicates on her website, we need to see inside those other viewpoints to truly understand the extent to which Auggie has left an impact on each of those characters.

Ultimately it may take a little more brainwork to write and to read a novel in multiple viewpoints, but the end result can be deeply fulfilling. After all, being able to understand and to follow more than one viewpoint on a topic helps to prep our kids for this challenging world in which we live. Once young readers understand that each character in a book sees plot events differently, it’s a quick connection to understanding that each of us in real life sees issues from a personal frame of reference. And comprehending one another’s viewpoints can be the first step toward acceptance, empathy, and kindness.

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Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at jennbrisendine.com, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.

Let’s Keep This Party Rolling!

It’s the 3rd week of our 7th Anniversary Celebration and there are 8 AMAZING authors giving away their books right here, right now.  Check out the books and mini author interviews below. Get all the way to the end and enter to win!

KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, by Melissa Roske (www.melissaroske.com)

Eleven-year-old Kat Greene has a lot on her pre-rinsed plate, thanks to her divorced mom’s obsession with cleaning. Add friendship troubles to the mix, a crummy role in the school play, and Mom’s decision to try out for Clean Sweep, a TV game show about cleaning, and what have you got? More trouble than Kat can handle—at least, without a little help from her friends. (release date August 22nd)

Question: How are you like your main character?

Melissa: Kat and I both have a parent with OCD (in my case, it’s my dad); we’re both huge fans of Louise Fitzhugh’s classic 1964 novel, Harriet the Spy; we both like to collect Snapple caps; we both love sushi; and we both have a dry, slightly sarcastic sense of humor. (Okay, more than slightly!)

 

INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS, by Dusti Bowling (www.dustibowling.com)

A move across the country, a friend in need of help, and a mystery to be solved. Aven Green is about to discover she can do it all… even without arms. (ARC)

Question: How are you like your main character?

Dusti: I like to think that, like Aven, I don’t give up easily. As a writer, that’s a really important trait because there are so many times when it’s tempting to give up, especially with how much rejection a writer can go through.

 

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, by Leah Henderson (www.leahhendersonbooks.com)

An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father in this captivating debut novel laced with magical realism.

Question: What animal did you most enjoy writing about in a book and why?

Leah: The goat. In my debut, there is a wonderful family goat named Jeeg, which means lady in Wolof. Early critiques said she was not integral to the story and should be taken out, but for me, she was everything. Each time she was on the page I could smell her little hairs and sense her eyes taking in all that was around her. She was a link to the mother that I thought was too precious to lose. I was determined to keep her in the story and I am so happy that I did. Jeeg makes me smile.

 

THE DOLLMAKER OF KRAKOW, by R. M. Romero (www.rmromero.com)

In the land of dolls, there is magic and in the land of humans, there is war. Everywhere there is pain—but together, there is hope. (ARC)

Question: What’s one event from your life that you’ve never worked into a story but you’d like to?

R.M.: I take care of a feral (stray) cat colony with five members—Snow White, Cow

Cat, Socks, Harvey, and Whisper—and they’re fascinating to watch. They have squabbles and best friends, and they all look out for one another like they’re part of a little furry family. Each cat has such a distinct personality that it’s easy to imagine them being characters in a story I write someday! (Snow White is my favorite. She’s a beautiful white cat who loves everyone.)

 

AHIMSA, by Supriya Kelkar (www.supriyakelkar.com)

In 1942 after Gandhi asks each family to give one member to the Indian freedom movement, 10-year-old Anjali is devastated to think of her father joining. But he’s not the one becoming a freedom fighter. Her mother is. (ARC)

Question: What animal did you most enjoy writing about in a book and why?

Supriya: I really enjoyed writing about Anjali’s cow, Nandini, because their bond is so strong.

 

UNDER LOCK AND KEY, by Allison K. Hymas (www.allisonkhymas.com)

When 12-year-old retrieval specialist (not “thief”) Jeremy Wilderson botches a job and puts the key that opens every locker in the school in the hands of an aspiring crime kingpin, he must team up with his nemesis, 12-year-old private detective Becca Mills, to get it back.

Question: How do you select the names of your characters?

Allison: Funny story, actually. I liked the name “Jeremy” because I thought it was everyman while still being a little spunky. But, when it came to the last name, I was stumped until I went to class and my teacher wrote “wilderson” on the board instead of “wilderness.” I know a freebie when I see it!

I picked the names based on how I liked the sound, as I usually do, but when I looked up what their names meant later, I was happily surprised. “Jeremy” means “appointed by God” and “Wilderson,” as far as I can tell, means “to deceive or lead astray.” Not a bad name for a thief-like character who is trying to do the right thing. “Becca” means “snare or trap” and “Mills” could come from a word meaning “warrior,” which also suits my intense little detective.

 

UNDER SIEGE! by Robyn Gioia (www.robyngioia.com)

Two 13-year old boys most help save the Castillo de San Marcos fort from the English or the town will perish.

Question: What animal did you most enjoy writing about in a book and why?

Robyn: The alligator in Under Siege! because it brings the reality of hunger and survival to the surface.

 

THE GHOST, THE RAT, AND ME, by Robyn Gioia (www.robyngioia.com)

Bell wanted to be 8th grade president. What she got was a dead rat, a clue, and a ghost from the past.

Question: What’s the BEST writing advice you’ve ever received? (Or . . . what’s the WORST writing advice you’ve ever received?)

Robyn: It seems so simple, but the best writing advice I ever got was from my critique writing group in England. “How can I make this interesting for my readers?”

 

THE SECRET DESTINY OF PIXIE PIPER and PIXIE PIPER AND THE MATTER OF THE BATTER, By Annabelle Fisher (www.annabellefisher.com)

Poetry whiz kid, Pixie discovers she’s a descendant of Mother Goose and that her rhymes have special powers. But to join the Goose Family and protect their legacy, she must be ‘braver than brave’ and’ truer than true’!

 

Question: What animal did you most enjoy writing about in a book and why?

Annabelle: Writing about Pixie’s goose, Destiny was a lot of fun. Since Destiny first appears as an egg that Pixie finds in the woods, I got to go through the process of hatching a gosling in a home-made incubator, along with my character. I did a lot of research about pet geese and their humans. They have lots of personality! Pixie and her gosling have an amazing bond. It made me want to get a pet goose!

ENTER TO WIN!  There are 7 different ways to earn entries! You can leave a comment below, follow MUF on Twitter, share about the giveaway on FB, and more. Give yourself loads of opportunities to win by earning all 7 different types of entries. The giveaway closes at midnight (ET) on Tuesday, June 27th. Be sure to check back on Thursday, June 29th, for our final MUFiversary giveaway! (Eligible only to U.S. addresses.)


Special thanks and congratulations to Monica Hodges who entered last week’s just-for-schools MUFiversary drawing and won a collection of new books for the library at JEFFERSON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL in Mount Vernon, WA!


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Beth McMullen