Writing Tips

Magical Realism in Middle Grade


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Magical realism is a flourishing sub-genre of middle grade literature, but what does it mean, how is it different from standard fantasy and why is it so appealing to young readers and not-so-young authors alike? My first introduction to magical realism came in college when I became enamored with the works of Congolese author Sony Lab’ou Tansi; although, at the time, I wrote a paper outlining how his brand of magical storytelling differed from the classic magical realism tradition of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Nowadays, my thoughts on the subject are not quite so lofty.

Middle grade authors have developed their own version of magical realism, which, of course, varies just as much as previous iterations. Today I’m going to share my specific understanding of the sub-genre and how I have used everyday magic as a tool to develop my characters’ emotional journeys.

First, a definition. I like to define magical realism in middle grade as a story that takes place in an everyday setting with just a hint of magic. However, we need to take the definition a few steps farther to really understand magical realism, especially if we want to differentiate it from contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy, which are also fantasy stories that take place in everyday settings. One of the key differences here is that with contemporary or urban fantasy, the fantasy element is generally a force that characters must strive to overcome. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the beasties are primarily there to drive the plot forward and give Buffy landmarks on her hero’s journey.

skeleton_tree_cvr_finalIn magical realism, the fantasy element serves a different purpose. It is generally there in order to spark or highlight an emotional change in the main character. Think of the magic as a spiritual guide, leading the character on a journey of self-discovery. The magical element is often symbolic of a larger idea. For a concrete example, let’s take a look at my first book, Skeleton Tree.

In Skeleton Tree, the main character, Stanly, discovers a finger bone in his backyard. He hopes to dig up the bones and photograph them in order to win a contest, but the bones have other ideas. They start to grow, first into a bony hand reaching up into the sky, and then into a full-sized skeleton that only children and a few special adults can see. The only person who doesn’t find the skeleton creepy is Stanly’s little sister, Miren. She wants to be best friends with the skeleton, that she names Princy, but when she starts to get sick more often than usual, Stanly worries that maybe the skeleton isn’t as friendly as Miren thinks.

Spoiler alert:  as you probably guessed, Princy represents Death in the story. As Stanly’s relationship with Princy changes and grows throughout the course of the book, so does Stanly’s understanding of Death. By the end, he realizes that, “maybe death [isn’t] all worms and nothingness. Maybe, sometimes, there [is] mystery and whimsy and dancing shadow puppets, too. The kind that [need] both light and dark to be seen” (154-155 Skeleton Tree). The magic serves the purpose of guiding both the character and the reader on an emotional journey that might be more difficult to conceptualize without a physical manifestation of a complex topic, in this case Princy as the physical manifestation of Death.

This is one of the reasons why I think magical realism works so well in middle grade. Not only can it give young readers a concrete way to visualize and understand fuzzy existential topics, but, using light magic, often with a big dose of whimsy, is also a great way to ease readers into a conversation about dark or difficult topics, like death in Skeleton Tree or homelessness in Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw.

Another characteristic that differentiates magical realism from contemporary or urban fantasy is that authors of magical realism usually make no attempt to explain the magic. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, we learn an entire mythology surrounding slayers and demons that, while still fantastical, explains the world in a way that viewers and characters in the show are willing to accept. On the other hand, in magical realism, the author makes little or no attempt to explain, because it’s not about developing a larger fantasy world or a plausible system of magic, it’s about taking the character on a specific emotional journey. Once the journey is over, the magic often disappears or goes away until it is needed by a future character looking to undertake a similar emotional journey.

Hopefully this article has given you a greater understanding of magical realism in middle grade literature and has inspired you to go out and read, or even write, some magical middle grade in 2019.

Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW (coming 2/26/2019). Her short story, ‘Jingle Jangle,’ will appear in the NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology releasing in 2020. Her works tackle tough topics with big doses of whimsy, hope and, of course, magic.

Writing Tips

That Creepy Feeling — Writing Shivery Stories


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First, let me say that this is what my average family gathering looks like around the holidays. The poisonous mushrooms steaming up grandma’s crystal platter. The live goldfish flitting about wide-eyed in their bowl, wondering if they’ll be swallowed whole or if cousin Octavia will get a hold of them first. Cousin Octavia likes to play with her food. Then there’s the questionable Jell-o, the stuffed gecko and Aunt Muriel’s bottle of Chanel No 5. Always handy when the still-beating heart hidden under the floorboards starts to smell.Addams Family DinnerOkay, my real family gatherings aren’t quite so grim, but they would make a good setting for a tummy-turning tale. So what are the secret ingredients to a juicy, brain-curdling yarn? (more…)

Weird Stuff

Hera + Creepy Doll = True Love


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I stumbled across this creepy lady at a garage sale a few years ago. She has yet to haunt my dreams or wink at me provocatively while I’m watching TV, but fingers crossed. At least she’s finally bonding with Hera, aka the Puppy of Unfathomable Evil.

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Writing Tips

To Conference or Not to Conference


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So, you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re considering going to a writing conference. Is it worth it? What should you keep in mind?

1. Do you need to attend conferences to become a professional writer?
No, you don’t. Conferences cost money, and sometimes you just don’t have it. What you do need is grit, a willingness to learn, a broad knowledge of the literature you’re trying to write and an awareness of how the industry works. It also helps to have a supportive group of fellow writers, who share your dreams, will give you constructive feedback on your work and will cry and/or celebrate with you when required. Attending a writing conference or joining a professional group, like SCBWI, can help with many, but not all of those things. If you are looking to learn more about the industry and to join a supportive community of writers, then attending a conference can be a great first step.

2. Will I get an agent or sell a book at a conference?
Maybe, but probably not. You are there to learn and make connections. Be open, ask questions and don’t be afraid to talk to the industry professionals attending the conference. They are regular people just like you. Learn how to give and receive feedback. Many conferences provide an opportunity for attendees to receive manuscript critiques from agents or editors. Don’t stress out. This is a learning opportunity. Make sure to listen and give yourself time to process any critiques before responding or dismissing feedback. Defending your work at first is totally natural, but try not to do it out loud, especially in your one-on-one with an editor or agent 🙂 Be open to making changes. Feedback that sounds wrong at first may end up enhancing your story if applied in the right way. Of course, the opposite remains true as well. Not every piece of advice that you receive from a critique partner or professional will improve your work. By joining a regular critique group, you can learn how to parse out which pieces of feedback to apply and which to ignore.

3. Will it be worth my time and money?
In my experience, yes. I always come away inspired and energized to work. I have made excellent friends through my affiliation with SCBWI, and I can’t imagine going on my writing journey without them. Plus, you will get to meet amazing people like these (goose not included):

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To learn more about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, visit https://www.scbwi.org/ or https://oklahoma.scbwi.org/ for the Oklahoma chapter. You’ll also find information about their upcoming conference 🙂

Book News

I’m Officially a Starving Artist


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Ever since I was little, I dreamed of becoming a starving artist, and now I’m finally pursuing that goal!!! 😛 This is my last day working at the Southwest Oklahoma City Library. From here on out, I will be trying my hand at being a full-time author. I don’t have any misconceptions about the future. I know it will be hard, and it may not work out forever, but I’m grateful to have this opportunity. Here are some pictures from my last day:

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Here’s a picture of my desk at the library
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Or is it? No! It’s a miniature!
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Thanks Anne Grenier!
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Thanks Mary for the awesome brownies!
Book News

Skeleton Tree Final Copies


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My awesome editor, Mallory Kass, recently sent me some advance final copies of Skeleton Tree!!! They are so beautiful! The cover has a unique, pearlescent finish that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The artwork by Lisa Perrin is amazing, especially the skull butterfly on the back. If you take the dust cover off, you’ll find an imprinted butterfly, complete with tiny skulls on a seafoam green background with vibrant pink text.

And there’s a big surprise on the inside as well. Skeleton Tree has a hidden flip book!

Weird Stuff

Put on your #bookface


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I’ve been having fun this summer talking my library co-workers into helping me make some awesome #bookface photos to post on Twitter and Instagram!!! If you haven’t tried it before, beware, capturing the perfect #bookface is fun, but it’s also harder than it looks. Mostly, it’s a process of trial and error. If the face on the cover is really big, the photo model will have to hold it close to their face to get a realistic image. Sometimes, the face is just too big, though, and the image doesn’t work. For small cover images, like body shots, you’ll need a third person to stand between you and the model to hold the book. #bookface photos are serious business 😛

Here are some of my successes. They’re not all perfect, but at least they’re weird: