What is Magical Realism?

My goal when creating my reading challenge categories is to stretch participants to reach for books they might not encounter on their own.

It seems I have succeeded this year because I have gotten a lot of questions asking for clarification on a few categories! The one that seems to have been the most foreign is to read a work of magical realism.

I chose this category because it’s my favorite genre, I think it’s under appreciated, and I like introducing readers to these books.

Today’s post is designed to explain what magical realism is and give you some examples for this year’s challenge.

What is Magical Realism?

Simply put, magical realism is a work of fiction that takes place in a realistic modern world while adding magical elements. This quote from Wikipedia words it best: Matthew Strecher defines it as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

The best way to explain it is with examples. One of my favorite novels in the genre is Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. Lillian is recruited by her former roommate Madison to become the live in caretaker for Madison’s new step-children. The only catch is when the kids get upset, they spontaneously combust. Flames burst from their skin, causing no harm to the kids but chaos all around them. This story takes place in our normal modern world with no other magical elements.

Another favorite is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Rose is a young girl who develops a rare gift. She can taste the emotions of the person who cooked the food. This reveals things to her about her family that she didn’t know, and makes eating a true challenge.

While these books are from recent years, magical realism is not a new genre.  According to Wikipedia, the term was first used in 1925, when German art critic Franz Roh used magischer Realismus to refer to a painting style known as Neue Sachlichkeit .

Some of the most well known works of the genre are considered classics from Latin American authors. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is a multi-generational story about a man who dreams about a city of mirrors then creates it. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is about a woman with paranormal powers and a connection to the spirit world. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is about a woman whose emotions are infused in her cooking, which affects the people who eat it.

What’s the difference between Magical realism and Fantasy?

That’s a great question! The two genres are often confused and the line between them can get pretty thin at times.

The main difference is that Fantasy takes place in a world other than our own. Magical Realism features ordinary people in our normal world. This article from Burlington County Public Library describes it well in that everything is normal, except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility as we know it. If there’s a magic system with rules and explanations, the book will most likely fall into the Fantasy genre. Magical Realism is intentionally vague; people don’t know why or how the magic works, it just does. 

And that last qualifier is why I enjoy Magical Realism so much. There’s no explanation as to why something is happening, it just is. Often time it makes these books come across as “weird,” which I appreciate. The author has to make their magical element work in our regular world, and that isn’t easy to do well.

I hope you found this post helpful and are able to find a Magical Realism novel you enjoy for my challenge. Maybe you’ll find more than one!

Here are some more examples:

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie 

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Life of Pi by Yann Martel


  1. Tarissa

    January 13, 2021 at 11:27 am

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this explanation about magical realism. Although I have read books like that in the past (without knowing that it’s magical realism, specifically), this info really helps me to choose a title to read for 2021.

  2. Bev

    January 13, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    Great post. Looking forward to your challenge. A few more books for this genre: Every Day by levithan; Echo ; Tuck Everlasting; A Snicker of Magic; Mathilda

  3. Ramona Mead

    January 14, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    Yay, I’m so glad this was helpful for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions. I hope you enjoy the challenge!

  4. Ramona Mead

    January 14, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks for adding your suggestions. I hope you enjoy the challenge!

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