Jennifer Mattson, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, agreed to answer our burning questions about the elusive genre known as magic realism. Prior to becoming a literary agent, Jennifer worked as an editor for Booklist and as an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books. Here’s what she had to say about magic realism.
What exactly is magic realism?
I think magic realism is still a gray area, especially in children’s literature where it is a newer trend – many people would categorize novels with magical realistic elements as fantasy, plain and simple, and vice versa. For my part, I think of magic realism as a subset of fantasy, and a magical realistic novel as one in which magical elements intrude, almost matter-of-factly, into a basically realistic setup, informing the novel’s various elements in a natural way rather than totally redirecting them. I also think of the magic as being very gentle and often surreal – nothing “high fantasy” (wizardly bolts, vampires, et cetera) about it.
Can you give some examples from books or movies?
Of course, the typical examples hail from the adult literary marketplace, and especially from the Latin American authors who are thought to have coined the genre: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE). A terrific kids’-book example is Kate diCamillo’s BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, in which the very down-to-earth setting and situations are magically affected by the librarian’s gently magical Litmus Lozenges. Another typical example would be Louis Sachar’s HOLES: the kids’ detention camp is very realistic, and the kids’ problems and personalities equally so, but the novel’s emphasis on near-surreal serendipity and coincidence lifts this into magic realism. On the YA side, Francesca Lia Block’s novels are good examples.
What age group do see magic realism working best for? MG, YA, tween?
Hm. That’s a tough question. This is just a total off-the-top-of-the-head theory, but perhaps younger (tween/mg) novel readers are more flexible in their literary tastes and categorizations and therefore more open to things (like magic realism) that are a bit ambiguous. YAs tend to be more literalist: if they want realistic, they want realistic; and if they’re fantasy buffs, they want fantasy. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t write a spectacular magical realistic YA (see Francesca Lia Block, above), just that the bar might be set a little higher.
Why do you think magic realism would do well in today’s market?
There is a glut of fantasy (especially, of course, urban/dark romantic fantasy – !) right now, and editors, while they can ride the wave to a certain extent, are having to be extremely picky about it. And, since they are always looking for something a little different, something that might be the next big thing, a genre like magic realism could potentially catch editors’ eyes, since it offers a frisson of fantasy without risking groans of “Oh, not another fairy/vampire/wizard book.”
Here’s Jennifer’s own question for you: Before I worked at BOOKLIST, my job previous to agenting, I always called this literary style “magical realism.” But everyone at BOOKLIST called it “magic realism.” Which term do you use?
Parker Peevyhouse is still not sure whether to say “magic” or “magical.”