Magical Realism as Metaphor

Magical realism is a genre that is permeating contemporary YA novels. Its subtlety, however, makes it difficult to pinpoint. The setting and characters are generally realistic, but there is a layer of surrealism that makes the genre separate from realistic fiction. The concept of “magical realism” may conjure twee images and descriptions. If anything, the “magical” parts of magical realism serve as powerful metaphors on reality that set apart the concept from dystopian or supernatural genres. Some of these metaphors illuminate aspects of the human condition. Other metaphors are twists on day-to-day life, when others are genuinely terrifying.

magical realism as metaphor

Below is a look at some recent YA novels that incorporate magical realism.


Bone Gap by Laura Ruby 

This book reads as if the town of Bone Gap is in the middle of nowhere, a place that no one can find except the characters within the story. The imagery in this story is lush and equal parts magical and chilling. Finn has “face blindness” and cannot recognize even those close to him. This is a problem when he is the only person that witnessed the kidnapping of his brother’s girlfriend, Roza. “A tall man with cold eyes” holds Roza against her will, which is the extent that Finn can remember of the captor. He realizes that his mission is to battle the tall man to free Roza. The local beekeeper’s daughter, Petey, who is considered ugly by everyone in the town, except Finn, also helps with the mission. They both witness a mysterious black horse appear that seemingly merges between worlds.

The concept of face blindness acts as a metaphor of how Finn may feel disconnected from his surroundings. The settings change for Roza’s imprisonment based on her requests and the tall man comes off as creepily manipulative. However, the unsettling nature of Roza’s imprisonment makes readers wonder what exactly would define personal hell. This story makes you think and re-think about what separates magic from reality.

Note: This book also won the 2016 Printz Award and you can read an interview with Laura Ruby here.

boxers and saints

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Based on the historical Boxer Rebellion that occurred in China during the year 1900, these two graphic novels explore opposing perceptions. The first graphic novel, Boxers, is shown from the perspective of Little Bao, who becomes a leader in the rebellion. The second graphic novel, Saints, follows a girl from the same village as Little Bao. The girl later adopts the Catholic religion and changes her name to Vibiana. She intends to follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc. The end of Saints leads to a dramatic conclusion.

The magical realism aspect in these two graphic novels is within the perceptions each side has of the other and of themselves. As a reader armed with basic historical context, it is easy to see how each side was swayed by generalizations and stereotypes of the opposing group. Little Bao acts in ways that could be considered cruel; he is protecting his region and feels that the foreigners threaten his livelihood. Little Bao helps create a ritualistic organization of mysticism and martial arts. Vibiana sees Joan of Arc everywhere she goes and her devotion to Christianity is boundless. In the end, the graphic novel set shows that strongly held beliefs can change the outcomes of world events.

Read an interview with Gene Luen Yang here.

cure for dreaming

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters 

This story may also be classified as historical fiction, but Cat Winters has taken historical fiction further by adding aspects of magical realism. The women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s is the predominant topic in this story. Olivia Mead sneaks off to rallies and refuses to live life as a “proper woman.” When she is invited to see a performance by an up-and-coming hypnotist named Henri, she is called to the stage. She is hypnotized and easily manipulated in the process. Olivia’s father is tired of her feminist antics and cruelly decides to hire the hypnotist to ensure that Olivia will never be able to speak her mind and see the world only “as it is.”

The plan backfires; instead, in her hypnotized state, she sees everything with a distorted worldview. Haughty men seeking her company appear almost two-faced to her: evil one moment, and deceptively charming the next. Olivia is terrified of her newfound knowledge, but it also acts as a powerful metaphor of truth within woman’s suffrage in this era.

love in the time of global warming

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block 

This story parallels the classic tale of The Odyssey by Homer and could easily be categorized as dystopian. However, the reliance of using The Odyssey as the structure for this story acts as its own magical realism. The world presented in this story is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is a surrealistic version of the classic tale coupled with dystopian elements.

In this story, an “earth shaker” has practically leveled southern California due to global warming. The main protagonist, Pen, is alone and does not know where the rest of her family ended up. She believes they are alive and begins a journey to find them. Pen calls herself “Nobody” in order to escape a troll-like Cyclops, naming her alienation in the journey. However, in the process, she comes across little orange butterflies that she interprets as symbolic. The butterflies lead her to three other teens that are as lost and unsure about how to survive. A dream-like sequence of people addicted to flower juice in a desert hotel appears like a break from the harsh realities of the world outside. Once torn away from the euphoria, the teens all embark on Pen’s journey to find her family in the southwest.

Note: There is also a sequel to this novel, The Island of Excess Love.


The Riverman by Aaron Starmer 

Alistair Cleary knows that his neighbor, Fiona, is not considered the most normal person at school. Fiona, however, does not seem to care until she asks Alistair to write her biography because he is trustworthy. He takes on the project reluctantly but in the process of documenting the biography, Fiona decides to tell Alistair a secret: in the basement of her house, there is a gateway to the world of Aquavania. Time almost stops in Aquavania and the rules are within the mind of the individual that enters there. When Fiona comes across other children and teens about her age in Aquavania, she begins to make friends. Slowly, her friends begin to disappear since a mysterious monster called the Riverman has been stealing the souls of children.

The story may be categorized more generally in the realm of fantasy. However, Fiona’s story about Aquavania concerns Alistair in the beginning. As Alistair considers Fiona’s puzzling story about the Riverman stealing the souls of children, it appears as a metaphor for something truly troubling. Is Fiona telling the truth about the Riverman or is something serious happening to her in real-life? It is a fascinating debate that occurs when reading this coming-of-age story.

Note: This is the first novel in a trilogy. The second novel is called The Whisper and the last novel in the trilogy is called The Storyteller.

Don’t forget to check out this previous post about magical realism for more reads.

— Diana Slavinsky, current reading the Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughn

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Diana Slavinsky

Diana is a Public Services Librarian for the Plano Public Library System in Plano, Texas. When she isn't going to concerts or reading the stack of books by her bed, she is spending time with her family and cats. Find her on Twitter @readwritemeow

3 thoughts on “Magical Realism as Metaphor”

  1. I’m disappointed that you didn’t really live up to the title of this post in the meat of it. What is the metaphor? What is the history? This is just a list of books. And in addition to misnaming two authors (Cat Winters, Francesca Lia Block), you included nothing from the cultures that are actually the main shapers and tastemakers in magical realism, which white people actually only glommed onto fairly recently. That is to say, where is Latin America, West Africa, and the African diaspora in this?

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