Where Does the Magic Come From?

In 2008, a middle-grade novel called Savvy, by first-time novelist Ingrid Law, swept numerous awards lists and was anointed with the silver medallion of Newbery runner-up.  Savvy has certain distinctive elements: a real-life location (rural Ohio), a loving though eccentric family, quirky characters, a desperate situation–and supernatural intervention, because each member of the family has a particular “savvy,” or supernatural power, that’s revealed at his or her 13th birthday.  The genre is best described as magical realism: a story set in an actual place and time, where the main problem or conflict is solved by other-worldly phenomena. (Even though, in this book and many others, the “savvy” is as much a problem as it is a solution.)

Since the publication of Savvy, I’ve noticed a bunch of books cut on the same general pattern.  Of course, stories where supernatural events occur in our own world (as opposed to a mythical kingdom or alternate universe) have plenty of representatives in classic children’s fiction—think The Indian in the Cupboard, or Tuck Everlasting, or—even farther back—Mary Poppins.  “Magic” is a staple of children’s literature, from fairy tales to Arabian nights, so what’s new?

Well, nothing is really new, as Solomon noted (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9).  But “new” does go in cycles, and we seem to be in a magical realism cycle now.

Important to note: this is different from magic as the learned power to manipulate inanimate forces (as in the Harry Potter series) or to conjure and control spirits (as in the Batimaeus series).  Savvy is a prime example of what I’m seeing more of.  Just recently I reviewed Lucky Strike: real-life location (Mississippi Gulf Coast), loving but eccentric family (Nate’s crotchety grandpa), quirky characters (Genesis Magnolia Beam and her father the Rev.), a desperate situation (lightning strike), and a supernatural power (sudden, inordinate luck).   And A Snicker of Magic: real-life location (western North Carolina), eccentric family (wandering mama), quirky characters (just about everybody in Midnight Gulch), desperate situation (homelessness), supernatural power (seeing words).

Then there’s Almost Super.  And Bliss and Cake.  Also Flora & Ulysses, and Egg & Spoon.  Sometimes the formula takes an interesting twist: the main characters in Almost Super receive “stupid” powers, and in Remarkable the main character is the only one in her town who doesn’t possess some phenomenal gift.  The magic almost always occurs without explanation; it’s just there, or it’s part of the family heritage from way back.

Most of these books tend toward sunny optimism.  Even though danger or sadness weaves into the plot, the reader knows that the best friend will not die, that the main character will find a home, that Dad will recover, and their immediate neighborhood will be much better off than it was before.  In fact, if I could sum up the theme of almost all the aforementioned books, it would be

The world is a beautiful, fascinating place, and you are a magical person if only you would realize it and tap into your special power.

 This is true and not true.  The world is beautiful and fascinating but also hard and cruel (that’s a point that YA literature has often been criticized for making).  How to solve that paradox, or at least live with it, might be seen as the big theme of all literature.  “Magic,” in the magical-realism genre, could be interpreted as a way to make the world come out right without recourse to any form of religious consolation.

Classic fairy tales like Cinderella perform a similar function, but fairy tales take place in a world understood as Once upon a time.  In other words, not here.  Also fairy tales are peopled by types rather than personalities: the wicked queen or stepmother, the noble prince, and the kind and beautiful heroine, with dwarves, giants, gnomes, and talking animals for magical mischief and comic relief.  The generic nature of fairy tales insures their survival.  They are for all time, not today’s Issue of the Week.  When highjacked and made to serve an agenda they lose their power.

The uniformity of fairy tales (truth and beauty always win) tells us something about the moral compass and human yearning for clear distinctions between good and evil. I’m not sure what the increase in magical realism for middle-schoolers tells us, except perhaps that when God goes out the door, “magic” creeps down the chimney. We have our supernatural yearnings, and need our supernatural fix.

I believe the world is beautiful and fascinating because God made it, and I believe the world is also hard and cruel because it’s fallen. We yearn for something beyond the world because He has planted eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes again, 3:11). In an increasingly secular society, though, I can’t say that just anywhere, and perhaps the last place I can say it is in a novel.  Fiction can’t preach.  But it can reflect, and current youth fiction might be reflecting a response to practical atheism in the public square and the public schools.  As these become more secular, life can’t be seen as a gift, because gifts demand givers. Life can only be a problem, or a series of problems, to be solved with facts and hard data (and gritty “realistic” YA novels).  With nowhere else to go, imagination retreats into fantasy, offering hope that there’s a little magic in all of us.

But where does the magic come from?  If we can’t answer that question, or if the answer is strictly relative, those puffy hopes are nothing but clouds.


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