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What Is Magical Realism? Is It Fabulism?

This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:

magical realism definition

If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.

Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.

Here is part one.

Essentially, magical realism is:

Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism

In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.

Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.

FABULISM OR MAGICAL REALISM?

Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:

fabulism does not equal magical realism

Michelle Witte argues that in fact magical realism did not originate in South America:

Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.

While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.

new objectivity painting magical realism

Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove 1929 Christian Schad 1894-1982. An example of New Objectivity in painting

SEE ALSO

Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is 50. Its magic realism is immortal, from Scroll.in.

Here’s a list of magical realist children’s books, which I am calling ‘fabulism’ to be safe: Fabulism In Children’s Literature

And here’s a discussion which begins with the question: The genre magical realism came to be in the German language. Yet, Latin American has had a home for the genre. Why is this?

 

Storybook Farms

Farms in children’s literature are often a kind of utopia. Often these are animal utopias, and the reader is not supposed to even think of what the animals are really there for. Writing of the book Hepzibah Hen, a Children’s Hour favourite from 1926, is described by Margaret Blount as ‘the antithesis of Animal Farm‘, in which

there are a few hints of what a farm is really for, but they seem to relate to a kind of social code — one does not mention the word ‘Christmas’ to a turkey, or ‘Pluck’ to a hen.

Animal Land

HENS

Storybook farms require hens. Honestly, hens are the best kind of farm animal. They have the best personalities!

Hepizbah Hen cover farms Continue reading

Girls Who Love Dogs In Children’s Literature

OLD SCHOOL KIDLIT ABOUT GIRLS AND THEIR LOVE FOR DOGS

What if you have a canine loving girl and she would like to see herself reflected in literature? Well, girls and dogs have in previous eras and in other cultures been seen together quite often.

cover by R. Bernardi, 1908

cover by R. Bernardi, 1908

Andreini 1910 1

Andreini 1910

cover by N. Borifina, 1919

cover by N. Borifina, 1919

 

Andreini 1909

Andreini 1909

The 1940s gave us George and Timmy, though Enid Blyton felt she had to turn Georgina into an honorary boy.

George and Timmy Famous Five

Dorothy had Toto, but you won’t find Toto on a lot of the covers. Here he is on this one, though:

Dorothy Toto

Notice that girl dogs tend to be little and cute, while boys tend to own larger working dogs:

Us illustrated and written by Cecil Aldin. The Story of a little girl and her black Scotch terrier.

Us illustrated and written by Cecil Aldin. The Story of a little girl and her black Scotch terrier.

I don't know the source of this illustration, which seems to date from the 1920s. Typically, the boy is associated with the dog; the girl with a cat; the toddler with a stuffed animal.

I don’t know the source of this illustration, which seems to date from the 1920s. Typically, the boy is associated with the dog; the girl with a cat; the toddler with a stuffed animal.

Scotty dogs are perhaps especially feminine:

SURPRISE: THE STORY OF MOLLY AND MOPS by Charlotte Smith

SURPRISE: THE STORY OF MOLLY AND MOPS by Charlotte Smith

Not many of the LHotP covers depict Jack, but he was certainly important to Laura and the family.

Not many of the LHotP covers depict Jack, but he was certainly important to Laura and the family.

This is the only version I can find of LHotP which highlights the special relationship between the girl and her dog.

This is the only version I can find of LHotP which highlights the special relationship between the girl and her dog.

Dogs continued to be important throughout Laura's life.

Dogs continued to be important throughout Laura’s life.

CONTEMPORARY MIDDLE GRADE

These days we do have the benefit of Kate diCamillo. This story ticks another box — it’s not about a well-off kid who lives in a middle class house and a good income. (Winn-Dixie has also been adapted for the screen.)

Because of Winn-Dixie

By Kay Thompson, illustrations by Hilary Knight. An adventurous and confident young girl lives on the top floor of a New York hotel with her nanny, a dog, and a turtle.

By Kay Thompson, illustrations by Hilary Knight. An adventurous and confident young girl lives on the top floor of a New York hotel with her nanny, a dog, and a turtle.

Star In The Storm

Though there's no girl on the cover (wouldn't want to alienate boy readers, now), this is about the relationship between a girl called Charley and her dog.

Though there’s no girl on the cover (wouldn’t want to alienate boy readers, now), this is about the relationship between a girl called Charley and her dog.

Here’s another book about other abled kids, and a girl and her dog.

One Golden Year cover

For one happy year, Caitlin and her mother raise and train a puppy to become a companion dog for the disabled. Albion, the loving, intelligent Golden Retriever, graduates from training and is given to a girl in a wheelchair who is Caitlin’s age.

PICTUREBOOKS

This picturebook from Pamela Allen is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

This picturebook from Pamela Allen is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

Wolf Children is a Japanese animated feature about a girl and a boy who are half wolf, half human. The girl is the storyteller narrator. It follows both the boy and the girl as they navigate through childhood and make a big decision at adolescence.

In picture books we have the metafictive story This Book Just Ate My Dog, and the main character is called Bella and is wearing a dress.

This Book Just Ate My Dog

 

FILM

A number of the stories above have been adapted for film/TV.

We also have The Journey of Natty Gann, which stars a ‘tomboy’ and looks to be a female equivalent of White Fang. The story is a Disney original but there’s also a novelisation of the film.

The Journey of Natty Gann

Set in 1935, the movie tells the story of a 15-year-old tomboy girl, Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger). Out of work because of Depression-era unemployment, Natty’s widowered father (Ray Wise) parlays his surefootedness into getting a job as a lumberjack. In order to get hired, he travels from Chicago to the state of Washington. He tells Natty that she will have to look after herself for the time being. Having no mother, Natty is left in the care of Connie (Lainie Kazan), the insensitive woman who manages the hotel Natty and her father had been living in.

After overhearing Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, Natty runs away to find her father on her own, embarking on a cross-country journey. Along the way she saves a wolfdog from a dog fighting ring. In return the dog, whom she calls Wolf, follows her as her protector in her attempt to return to her Father.

 

 

Picturebook Study: The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit is a picturebook from the first Golden Age of Children’s Literature. First published in 1922, The Velveteen Rabbit has been re-illustrated many times since.

The story is now out of copyright and can be read freely at Project Gutenberg.

The Velveteen Rabbit book cover

But the story was originally illustrated by William Nicholson (1872-1949). He and his wife had four children, two boys and two girls, though because of wars and illness only one of the sons and one of the daughters lived full lives; one son was killed in the first world war and a daughter died of the Spanish flu.

William’s own daughter died of the flu around the same time — just before — he illustrated this, about a little boy who becomes very ill due to an epidemic of illness. This knowledge makes the illustration ‘anxious times’ particularly resonant, with the bottles of medicine in the background.

anxious times

Marjery Williams had been writing children’s books since the age of 19, but it took her until the age of 41 to write The Velveteen Rabbit, her runaway success story.

She has recreated here a similar sort of household set up as she herself would have had in London as the daughter of a barrister — the absent parents, the staff, the large collection of toys and the means to afford a trip to the seaside, which is what people did in the pre-antibiotic era. Alexander Fleming didn’t discover the healing powers of penicillin until 1928, six years after this book was published.

Scarlet fever is an infectious bacterial disease affecting especially children, and causing fever and a scarlet rash. It is caused by streptococci (strep throat or a strep skin condition). These days — at least for now — any child with access to antibiotics isn’t going to suffer the dire consequences of this illness, which we are told caused Mary Ingalls’ blindness in the Little House On The Prairie series. However, scarlet fever does not cause blindness. Mary may have caught a virus from a tick, such as West Nile virus. Or she may have had the mumps or suffered complications from the oral herpes virus (cold sores), which most people have in their system. (Just because you don’t get cold sores doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus.)

However, there is a certain romance in the word ‘scarlet fever’, and ‘herpes’ doesn’t quite do it for children’s characters. (Anne of Green Gables probably had oral herpes.)

There are instances of scarlet fever in the following fictional tales:

  • Little Women
  • Frankenstein
  • Five Are Together Again (Famous Five series)
  • Kit Kittredge (American Girl series)

And yet herpes is rarely mentioned in children’s books.

The Velveteen Rabbit satirical book title

from the Better Book Titles website

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE VELVETEEN RABBIT

The Velveteen Rabbit is a literary fairytale — one which is written down by a known author rather than having evolved from a long mysterious history of oral folklore.

There is indeed a fairy, which comes about after the rabbit sheds a tear. (A flower pops up and out comes the fairy.)

WEAKNESS

Velveteen rabbit isn’t ‘real’. (Alive)

DESIRE

Velveteen rabbit wants to have a full life with meaningful relationships. We know this because the rabbit is very interested in what the Skin Horse is telling him.

skin horse tells his story

OPPONENT

Nana is the first opponent, cast as a woman who basically wants to get rid of anything that looks old and nasty. Young modern readers will probably assume this is the boy’s grandmother, but given the era, it’s more likely referring to the female servant of a middle-upper class household in charge of the care of young children. This nana is not the warm grandmother more often found in modern picturebooks. Modern grandmothers have plenty of time for their grandchildren — usually more than the parents do. But in this story:

Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for china dogs at bedtime, so she simply looked about her…

Next, the field rabbits stand in contrast to this toy one, to highlight how much better it would be to be able to prance about on the prairie.

rabbit on the hill

PLAN

The Velveteen Rabbit has no real plan other to hang around waiting to become real.

It was a long weary time, for the Boy was too ill to play, and the little Rabbit found it rather dull with nothing to do all day long. But he snuggled down patiently, and looked forward to the time when the Boy should be well again, and they would go out in the garden amongst the flowers and the butterflies and play splendid games in the raspberry thicket like they used to.

This toy plans to become ‘real’ by basically being a loyal companion to the Boy.

BATTLE

Velveteen Rabbit is almost a goner before the trip to the seaside. This time the doctor is cast as the main opponent — Nana has come around a bit because she’s noticed the toy has a knowing look on its face:

“How about his old Bunny?” she asked.

“That?” said the doctor. “Why, it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs! — Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get him a new one. He mustn’t have that any more!”

And so the little Rabbit was put into a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire…

But because he’s part real he manages to wriggle out of the sack.

SELF-REVELATION

When the Rabbit realises he has full use of his hind legs he realises he is really real.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

He will now live with the rabbits in the field.

The Boy remembers his lost toy whenever he catches sight of that rabbit, with the similar markings.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do-something Day is one of those didactic stories in which the parental figures are too busy working to play with their precious little children. In such stories, the child usually goes out and has their own adventure, or an elderly neighbour/grandparent steps in to fill the psychological need, which is loneliness/boredom. And that’s what happens here.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DO-SOMETHING DAY

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Do-Something Day staircase

 

DESIRE

Bernie wants to make the most of the great weather outside.

OPPONENT

His family are too busy to spend time with him, absorbed in their own work and play.

PLAN

Bernie got mad. “No one needs me. I’ll run away!”

He left the house and went down the street.

The plot relies on mythic structure as Bernie leaves home and encounters a variety of people along the way. This is a very Sesame Street sort of neighbourhood — the old-fashioned view of a capitalist utopia in fact, with a friendly neighbourhood mechanic, a Mr Dimple who runs the delicatessen, Bertha who owns a bakery and so on. Each of these friendly adults with endless patience and time on their hands lets Bernie ‘help’ them with their work. Bertie collects talismans on the way (a map, a salami, a sour pickle, warm rye bread. This lends the story a distinctly fairy tale feel. Eventually he meets a horse and cart, which puts me in mind of a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Do Something Day horse and cart_700x595

The running away scene is already the start of other famous tales such as The Three Little Pigs (who are pushed out of home due to economic constraints rather than leaving of their own volition, but still).

BATTLE

The battle in The Do-something Day is entirely psychological. At each stop we hear Bernie’s sob story about how everyone is too busy for him. The gifts he receives culminate until eventually he is given a dog.

Don’t you love it how white boys in storybooks so easily acquire dogs… a pet which takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a suitable home with consenting adults? How many kids think they can bring home strays just because they’ve seen that so many times in picture books? And how many adults? (Quite a few, according to my mother, who worked for some years at the SPCA.)

SELF-REVELATION

The Do Something Day street scene_700x624

Bernie has his self-revelation when he sits down to rest.

They all needed me and wanted my help, thought Bernie with satisfaction. He looked at his things and had an idea. He got up and started walking home.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Obviously, the family have been worried about him, having undergone their own self-revelations about the importance of attending to the needs of the youngest member of the family:

His mother, father, and brother were on the porch waiting for him. Slowly he walked up the steps and said, “I ran away.”

Bernie gives the talismans to each member of the family. The map goes to the father, of course (since women can’t read maps). The food goes to the  mother (because women are in charge of the day-to-day feeding of the family).

His mother smiled. “We need help from one another, Bernie. But we really need you to love.” And she gave him a great big hug.

English Speaking Cultures Are Not Translating Enough Non-English Children’s Literature

Although Britain is part of the European Union, when it comes to children’s literature, it makes more sense to regard Britain as standing apart from Europe.

Here’s why.

When you talk about your writing with Europeans, they’re more interested in what you’re saying with your fiction–your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie’s coming out.

– Olen Steinhauer

Could this mean that Europeans have more interest in themes and messages in kidlit, also?

  • In European countries that remained as dictatorships after WW2 (like Spain), the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and didn’t flourish.
  • With the exception of Britain, translated books are seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.
  • With the exception of Britain, in European countries up to 35% of their published children’s literature has been translated from another language. (Britain’s rate is 1%.)

Britain, like America is not translating enough European children’s literature.

Walking around at Bologna [International Children’s Book Fair], there is so much good work from so many countries (as well as a lot that is, well, market driven, to be polite), whether in text or illustration, that you wonder why more of it isn’t represented in Britain. Take the Andersen and Astrid Lindgren award winners for instance. [Argentinian writer] Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of [Danish writer] Guus Kuijer’s over fifty titles have ever been translated. And this isn’t just about translation, because there’s a lot from other countries that publish in English that doesn’t reach us. … To be at Bologna, then, is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.

Books For Keeps

 

If anyone would like to see this changed, do support small publishers such as New Zealand based Gecko Press who translate some of the best work from (mainly) Europe for English speaking children to enjoy.

Olivia And The Missing Toy by Ian Falconer (2003)

Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.

There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.

Olivia and the Missing Toy scary

The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:

Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.

I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading

The Soviet Union Children’s Books

Best Loved Books In The Former Soviet Union

  • The True History of a Little Ragamuffin by James Greenwood (written by an English author, for adults, but little known in the UK)
  • Books by Boris Zakhoder (who translated Alice In Wonderland into Russian very adeptly)
  • An early Soviet classic, Schwambrania by Lev Kassil is about two provincial Russian brothers growing up prior to and after the revolution of 1917. Bored by dull reality, they invent a land of their own which has everything their real life lacks. Unlike a magical world such as Narnia or Never-Neverland, the imaginary world is always portrayed as simply make-believe.  This make believe land is girl-free. When they let a girl in, it turns to crap. Lev (author/storyteller) remains misogynist. At the end of the book, the reader is supposed to believe that the USSR has become so great that the boys no longer need their imaginary world.
  • For small children (pre-school and primary) three authors ruled the USSR: Agniya BartoSamuil Marshak and Korney Chukovsky.
  • For older children there was more variety, for example The Two Captains (1938 and 1944) by Kaverin was popular. Some people adored Krapivin and Anatoly Alexin. Teenagers read the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction.
  • russian fairytales

Continue reading

Picnics In Children’s Literature

Wind In The Willows

Charles Van Sandwyk

Charles Van Sandwyk

Sophie Blackall

Sophie Blackall

The Wind In The Willows has a great, memorable picnic scene and is used on the cover of various editions.

This artwork by Arthur Sarnoff captures the feel of a mid-century village picnic, with the women organising everything and the men carrying the heavy things. Looking at that steeple in the background, I’m reminded of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, in which Call (a cowboy born in the early 1800s) isn’t quite sure what picnics are, exactly, but thinks they have something to do with church.

Arthur Sarnoff

Arthur Sarnoff

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Common Wish Fulfilment In Children’s Fantasy

Genre fiction and children’s fiction often functions to allow the reader to experience a particular form of fantasy. Some wishes are considered more worthy than others.

Wish Fulfillment Children's Literature

FIVE CHILDREN AND IT

The classic book that is entirely about what happens when you wish: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, published 1902. Nesbit had a firm grasp on the main reasons children read, and each chapter explores what happens after certain wishes are fulfilled.

The moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for! Also, simply having your wishes come true doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. Every outcome has unpredictable consequences. Other people are always caught in your life web — you can’t make a personal wish without it affecting your community.

WISH FULFILMENT AND GENDER

Neil Gaiman has proposed a gender divide when it comes to wish fulfilment in stories.

Boys: Boys are bigger, stronger, faster, invisible, can fly. The wish fulfilment fantasies of boys are historically given more weight — seen as aspirational, part of normal, healthy development.

Girls: Girls’ real lives are based on lies. Their parents are not their real parents — they are secret princesses. There’s a promise of transmutation.

Some wish fulfilment fantasies in genre fiction read largely by girls is historically dismissed as banal, silly, crazy. The wish fulfilment of dark paranormal romance is one example. Girls wish for a handsome hero saviour but also wish to put aside the problems they face in everyday life — responsibility, body dissatisfaction and also the feeling of being unsafe, which girls must deal with as they enter the dating world. 

WISH FULFILMENT IN STORIES FOR ADULTS

In adult fiction, the wish fulfilment aspect of story enjoyment is no less hidden — it may simply be invisible.

There are many literary stories about a middle aged man who falls in love with a much younger, beautiful woman. Or a troubled girl comes under the wing of a much older man and he helps her out. When there’s an element of regret in the story, this, too, is a form of wish fulfilment. A story which succumbs to this sort of wish fulfilment is Million Dollar Baby. Another is The Homesman. A story which could have succumbed to this kind of regret but manages to rise above is the film Wildlike, with the screenplay written by Frank Hall Green, whose work you may know from Foxcatcher, Precious, 127 Hours and Mud.

Apocalyptic fiction such as The Walking Dead or The Road explores the wish of a man to save himself and his own tribe using his most macho attributes and weaponry, outside the bounds of the safer, more banal real world in which he lives.

The entire genre of Westerns were about a male wish fulfilment to expand the American empire, travelling from small town to small town as a travelling angel character.

This piece about Game of Thrones and similar stories talks about the damaging wish fulfilment of wanting to rise above another group of people and come up roses with no ill-consequence for yourself.

Games such as Grand Theft Auto, surprisingly, aren’t really about enjoyment. They’re about “The Ideal Self At Play” — a.ka. self-actualisation.

“It’s the very reason that people play online RPGs,” Bartle said. “In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.” In video games, we are free to be who we really are—or at least find out who we really are if we don’t already know.

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