Monday, May 15, 2006

Transitional reading

And by that, I don't mean books that bridge between readers and chapter books, I mean books that move readers from one genre to another. Case in point is Mary Downing Hahn's Witch Catcher, which I'm reviewing in the July/August Horn Book. I've enjoyed Hahn's books, both gothics and historical fiction, for years, but publisher Clarion is calling this one her "first fantasy novel." While technically inaccurate (since ghost stories--of which Hahn is a master--are fantasy), I think what they mean is that this is her first book with magical beings, witches and fairies, in it. Does this kind of fantasy have a name? Domestic fantasy?

What I'm admiring about it is the way Hahn begins with motifs and themes that her impressive fan club will enjoy (a bookish heroine, a mysterious old house) and only then introducing the fairies and witches, thus giving fans what they want and then taking them someplace new. I could see suggesting this to a kid for whom Harry Potter is too noisy and Susan Cooper too intimidating: too much magic.


Judith said...

Roger, I'm not familiar with Mary Downing Hahn: only one book of hers is listed at the bookshop I most rely on for international children's lit. Can you suggest a few titles that you'd recommend, as it sounds like I'd like her books, but will have to selectively order them from the US. Thanks!

mwt said...


I like the term, "magical realism" that's been used for grown-ups. i think kids can have it, too. what do you think?

Roger Sutton said...

Hey Judith--I would recommend Wait Til Helen Comes (a ghost story), Stepping on the Cracks (ww2 homefront historical fiction) and The Wind Blows Backwards (moody teen love story).

Megan, I think of magical realism as books set in a world that is recognizably our own but with supenatural elements that the characters accept as completely normal, so that when a ghost appears, the response isn't "eek!" but "oh, hello, Uncle Jack."

Anonymous said...

Roger, what would you call the books of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit? They've never seemed like "fantasy" to me, maybe because they're not high-flown good-versus-evil kinds of things. When I was a kid they were my favorite kind of book, and I thought of them as "magic" books.

mwt said...

yeah, what anonymous said. Eager's books are ones that I would say argue for an extension of the magical realism catagory because of the rather blase acceptance of magical events. "oh look, it's a magic nickel. cool, what else are we doing today?" Mary Poppins and Nesbit have a similar approach. It isn't magical realism, becaue it isn't as if the whole community shares the idea that if you can't find the key to a trunk you can always summon Aunt Matilda back from the dead to tell you where she put it. Yet, the children in this community, do share the idea that magic is a rare, but not impossible occurence.

KT Horning said...

"Magical realism" is an actual literary term that was first applied to the work of many Latin American writers, such as Garcia Marquez, in which extraordinary things (a generation of people born with pig tails, for instance) are presented as ordinary happenings.

Magical realism is typically more realistic than fantastical. The American children's author I think comes closest to writing magical realism is Virginia Hamilton. How else do you explain a kid atop a 40 foot pole in the middle of rural America?

In my experience, I've found that most North American readers don't seem to have much of a taste for magical realism. They want a clear dividing line between fantasy and reality, and they want there to be a logical explanation for everything that happens in a work of realistic fiction. Otherwise, it's dismissed as "not credible" or "just too weird."