Magical Realism . . . Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary!

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, supernatural and 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.

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 attempt to bring some sort of order into an otherwise disconcerting life. There is one aspect of the story that is not *quite* real (or is it?) concerning the unusual species of butterflies Tara Doucet’s grandmother is researching. These beautiful butterflies appear to possess extraordinary characteristics—maybe even magical. Hence, Grammy Claire’s fascinating research on an island treehouse laboratory! But the cultures of both Louisiana and Micronesia as well as the story’s characters and life-changing growth are very much grounded in reality.

Here’s another great link defining Magical Realism.

Another Example:
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 backward in time into a vastly different time period and culture from their own where they must often cope with explosive events and try to get back home in one piece.

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
A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd
PRACTICAL MAGIC by Alice Hoffman (Adult novel)
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Adult novel)

Please share one of your favorite Magical Realism books or authors with us in the comments. I’d love to get more titles for my own towering stack of Books To Be Read Soon!

Kimberley Griffiths Little’s next Middle-Grade novel, THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES, will publish July, 2014 with Scholastic. (Her Young Adult debut, FORBIDDEN, launches November 2014 with Harpercollins). You can find her hanging out a lot on Facebook. Teacher’s Guides, Mother/Daughter Book Club Guides, and “filmed on location” book trailers at her website.

10 responses to “Magical Realism . . . Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary!

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  4. I’ve never view Magical Realism as described. I’ve always understood it not as a subset of fantasy, but literature that exposes the underlying reality that makes various cultures what they are. Midnight Children and Like Water For Chocolate as examples.

  5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a favorite of mine. Great post and great definition of magical realism. It seems that it is more the amount of “magical element” than the type of element that is important, as well as the fact that the characters are in the real world. Interesting.

  6. One of my graduate school professors has published a magical realism book. What We Keep is Not Always What Will Stay by Amanda Cockrell. It has a “talking” statue of a patron saint. So cool!

  7. David Almond is one of my favorite magical realists. They’re a bit young for this blog, but I especially love his My Dad’s A Birdman and The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon.

  8. I’m in love with Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-roof from the 1950-s. Still going (or flying) strong. One of my favorite cartoons, too.

  9. Sarah Yasutake

    I’m a big fan of magical realism. Some recent MG favorites of mine that use it are The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech, and both Keeper and True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Favorite books for adults that use MR include The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

  10. Sad to say, what’s coolest about magical realism is, I can indulge my ghost/fairy/space alien/dimension travelling/etc loving inner geek while still being me. (a boring suburban mom in labels culled from my upper-middle-class neighborhood TJ Maxx, whose only nod to hipster fashion actually corrects my crap eyesight). I could go to, say, a Tolkien fans conference and probably be the only person without blue hair who doesn’t spell it magick or faerie. I could go to a magical realism fan conference and run into another mom with blonde highlights and radar for the Coach outlet.

    It throws me back to high school – a big reason I never took art or creative writing was I wouldn’t have fit in with my koolaid hair-dyeing, flannel-wearing, Cobain-obsessed nihilist peers. I let lack of confidence and, well, being myself hold me back. And I’m light years behind where I want to be from those choices.

    Now I have more confidence and a genre with a good middle ground.

    Oh, and you’re a fabulous person and an awesome writer with gorgeous hair, Kimberley.