Thursday, August 6, 2015

Magic Realism or Fantasy? What's the Difference? by Joy McCullough-Carranza

In a recent blog post describing what sort of manuscripts I’d like to work with as a mentor in the Pitchwars contest, I specified that I’d like magic realism, but not fantasy. Immediately I began to get questions. What’s the difference? Why had I said I didn’t want fantasy, but then listed Flora & Ulysses as one of my favorite books? Isn’t that fantasy? After all, squirrels that write poetry on typewriters are pretty fantastical.

But I'd call Flora & Ulysses magic realism.

So I thought I’d unpack the difference between fantasy and magic realism, as I see it anyway. These terms are fluid, and perhaps it all falls on a spectrum, with completely realistic novels on one side and completely fantastical novels on the other. But I think it’s useful to understand the distinction for a couple reasons. For one thing, it’s not uncommon for agents or editors to say they’re looking for one or the other in their submissions. Agents are extremely unlikely to reject a query because the author has miscategorized their manuscript, and publishers will figure out how to market a book. But on the other hand, a query shines more brightly when the author clearly understands where they fall in the market.

Also, there can be a cultural misunderstanding around the term magic realism. A blog post at recounts a well-known author at a convention who referred to “Magic realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author!”

It’s true that some of the most famous magic realism has come from Latin America. But not all Latin American fiction with magic is magic realism, and not all magic realism is based in Latin American cultures. To assume either is culturally ignorant.

So what is magic realism? For one thing, it’s firmly grounded in the real world, and deals with real people grappling with real world conflicts. The elements of magic are employed (with a light hand) to illuminate those characters and their real world struggles. The magical elements in magic realism do not tend to have rules and systems around how they occur. And they’re usually presented side by side with the realistic elements, as though the magic is completely ordinary (which, in turn, can elevate the ordinary to magical). I love magic realism in MG because I think this is how so many kids live day to day (before their imaginations get squashed, anyway) – magic is ordinary, and the ordinary can be magical.

Fantasy is a really broad category, encompassing a huge array of sub-genres.  We can probably agree that anything that takes place in a completely imagined world populated by fantastical creatures or talking animals or witches and wizards is fantasy. It gets trickier to draw the line when we consider books that are set firmly in this world, but contain magic or supernatural elements. These are often called contemporary fantasies or urban fantasies.

So let’s consider a few different books and decide where they fall. (Feel free to argue in the comments if you think I’m off-base. There aren’t hard rules in all this.)

STORYBOUND by Marissa Burt – A girl in our world opens a magical book and ends up in a completely different world, where she attends a school for fairytale characters. Other elements of note: talking animals, very systematic magic, instructed in a special school. VERDICT: FANTASY

THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne Salerni – A boy in a world that seems very much like our own discovers he is a rare sort of person who lives in an eight day week, and that some people only exist in the eight-day week, because of a magic spell. Other elements of note: non-human characters like brownies, characters who are descendants from Arthurian legend, some characters have magical powers like the ability to force someone to speak truth, or tell through scent whether someone is magical. VERDICT: FANTASY

CENTAUR RISING by Jane Yolen - Set firmly in the real world in the 1960’s, a farm girl’s horse gives birth to a baby centaur. While the focus of the story is on real world people with real world problems, the presence of the mythological creature, together with the fact that that creature is regarded as extraordinary, all say fantasy to me. VERDICT: FANTASY

THE CABINET OF EARTHS by Anne Nesbet - When I asked Project Mayhem contributors if any of them had written magic realism, Anne Nesbet mentioned that a number of reviewers had called The Cabinet of Earths magic realism. I haven’t read it yet, and would be curious to hear what some who have read it think. In magic realism, the magical is treated as ordinary, and in this book, it sounds like the magic cabinet is seen as quite extraordinary. So I’d lean fantasy, but couldn't say for sure without reading. VERDICT: STILL OUT

DEADWOOD by Kell Andrews - A story firmly grounded in the real world, in which a spirit tree (so named not for mystical reasons, but because messages of school spirit are carved into the trunk) uses text messages to communicate with kids about lifting a curse on their town. I’m looking forward to reading this. It sounds like it could be contemporary fantasy or magic realism, depending on how extraordinary the tree seems to the characters it interacts with. VERDICT: STILL OUT

WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME by Kimberly Griffiths Little – Tara is struggling with her mom’s depression and the death of her grandma when butterflies start to follow her. (Right away, this is a nod to the butterflies that follow a character in the magic realism classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.) The butterflies are there, propelling Tara forward and illuminating her journey, but the focus always stays on Tara’s real world stakes and goals. VERDICT: MAGIC REALISM

To be clear, I don’t believe writers should let genre distinctions color what they’re writing in any way. Tell the story that needs telling in the strongest possible way. And if you write something that defies categories, that's awesome! But in the interest of understanding where your work fits in the market, and targeting the best possible people to help you get it read, it could be helpful to know whether you’re writing fantasy or magical realism.

Do you define magic realism in another way? Do you think I've miscategorized one of the books above? What are some MG titles you consider magic realism?


  1. Great post~ thanks for clarifying! I agree with your assessments :) One of my favorites is Bigger than a Breadbox. Nikki Loftin's Nightingale's Nest was wonderful as well!

  2. I was going to mention Nikki Loftin, too! Her newest book Wish Girl would also fall into the magic realism category, I think.

  3. I love this part of your definition, which really clarifies the distinction for me:

    "The magical elements in magic realism do not tend to have rules and systems around how they occur. And they’re usually presented side by side with the realistic elements, as though the magic is completely ordinary (which, in turn, can elevate the ordinary to magical)."

  4. Great explanation. Thanks.

    I wonder where you place THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK by Kelly Barnhill.

    1. You know, I haven't read it! It's been on my list for a while and re-reading the descriptions to see if I could glean an opinion, I'm bumping it up. Library hold placed! :-)

  5. Nikki Loftin's Nightingale's Nest and Laurel Snyder's Bigger Than a Breadbox are definitely magic realism! I think The Mostly True Story of Jack walks the line -- starts out as magic realism, but dips more closely into fantasy by the end.

    A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd are two great examples of magic realism from the past year -- magic in a realistic contemporary setting with great voice.

    Where do put a book like Glimmerglass House by Kate Milford? I consider that magic realism but it could also be said to be paranormal. What's magic and what's paranormal activity?

    1. With paranormal elements, I think the question is whether the paranormal elements are central to the story and whether they're treated as otherworldly or matter of fact. There are ghosts in One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example. But a story like Rules for Ghosting, where the central conflict of the story focuses on ghosts and their otherworldliness

  6. Thank you for acknowledging the "Latin American author = must be magic realism" stereotype. I sometimes wonder if the reason we have a lack of POC authors in certain genres is because they get categorized like this.

    The book I'm thinking of is Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. It's probably flat-out fantasy than magic realism, but the magic is in the real world and the main conflict is a real-world problem, rather than the magic villain. It was really odd to me. Not bad, just different than what I was expecting.

    1. Eek, published too soon. The first sentence of paragraph two should start "About the fine line between fantasy and magic realism, the book I'm thinking of..."

    2. Yes, I think you're right about categorization sometimes limiting POC authors. I'd call Ophelia a fantasy, but if we think about it as a spectrum, it's more to the left of something more overtly fantastical.

  7. Thanks for this explanation -- so great to have examples!

  8. I definitely agree with this: "...firmly grounded in the real world, and deals with real people grappling with real world conflicts. The elements of magic are employed (with a light hand) to illuminate those characters and their real world struggles. The magical elements in magic realism do not tend to have rules and systems around how they occur. And they’re usually presented side by side with the realistic elements..."
    HOWEVER, I don't agree that the magic is accepted as being "completely ordinary." If anything, I'd say it's the magic in FANTASY that is accepted as being completely ordinary (within that fantasy world). Whereas in magical realism, which is taking place inside the "real world" the magic is definitely seen as unusual. In Laurel Snyder's BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX (which I would definitely consider magical realism) the main character is initially shocked by the fact that whatever she wishes for appears inside this magical breadbox. She does accept it (lets face it kids are pretty accepting and I would agree that this is normal in magical realism) but it is not something she sees as an ordinary occurrence. And I would say this holds true for all the books I would consider MG magical realism including: WHEN YOU REACH ME, NORTH OF NOWHERE, SEVEN STORIES UP. ALL THE ANSWERS, etc.

  9. I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that makes math and science relevant and fun in a story of magic and danger. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading the only safe city of its kind in this world, she will have to prove her worth to stay as well as help this city as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where math is magic, Alex wishes she paid more attention in math class. Search for the book on Goodreads for reviews. A review mentioned, “A lot of the books that have educational elements embedded in the plot feel forced. Libellus de Numeros is just the opposite. The math, science, etc. are natural, organic, contributing parts of the plot that fit in seamlessly." My 11-year-old daughter just finished reading it and she learned math and science in a fun way.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!