Someone asked for definitions for Magical Realism on Child_lit listserv — largely due to the fact that there is not truly academically agreed upon hard definitions for this “genre” (or sub-genre, or simply, a style.) I offered the following personal observations:
Magical Realism has to take place largely IN a REAL setting – normal people, regular time/space, as you would find in books like Anne of Green Gable, or The Outsiders, or Frindle.
But — this Real World wears a thin gossamer of something magical — it might cover the entire realm and manifest here and there, but very very faintly and is almost never full-on addressed; it might only inhabit a few characters’ lives/minds, and it is usually unspoken, too — merely experienced: in an unsurprising manner, unspoken, but understood by all the characters. A typical instance will be for a character to be visited by a dead relative who gives advice or sheds light on current event in a semi-dream state, with no fanfare, no fear, and not even confusion.
To me, It differs from high fantasy where there is a whole made-up world for the magic to happen. It also differs from other kinds of fantasy but then largely in TONE and in the characters’ reaction to the existence of Magic in the Real World. City of Bones, taking place in current day world is NOT magical realism because it is still a re-built world where Shadowhunters and other magical creatures co-inhabit with humans and the world’s fate hinges on the actions of those magical creatures. This is a straightforward fantasy.
A Monster Calls, on the other hand, feels to me more like Magical Realism because the “magic stuff” overlays gently on top of a very real world. (And that’s even debatable.) Weetzie Bat and other books by Block have been called magical realism — I’m on the fence about this, too.
And when someone mentioned that Holes is cited as a work of “magical realism,” I responded:
[Holes] feels more like a folk tale or a tall tale, which is different from Magical Realism in my bones. The tone is too bright, too straightforward, and the magic and legend too “told” and, if this makes sense, too directly involved in moving the plot along. It serves as a plot device and not as a sheen…