The Presence of Magical Realism in YA Literature: When You Reach Me and How I Live Now

For those that aren’t too familiar with Magical Realism (and if everyone is, forgive me if this is patronizing), its the presence of “the fantastic” or elements of the fantastic woven into a narrative that would otherwise constitute as realistic fiction. The most famous examples of this type of writing can most readily be found in works created by South American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, Daughters of Fortune). While my experiences with this genre of fiction are fairly limited, I have always been fascinated by the idea that “fantastic” elements could be woven so easily (almost flippantly) into a narrative. Magical occurrences take place and all the characters in their books continue about their business as though it isn’t odd that one of their family members has naturally green hair and possesses a staggering ethereal beauty (found in The House of the Spirits).

how i live now                  when-you-reach-me

The week in which we read When You Reach Me and How I Live Now was very refreshing to me because of the fact that the authors of these novels wrote their narratives in a very similar vein. Miranda’s realization [SPOILERS] that the homeless “laughing man” on her street was actually Marcus time traveling from the past to prevent Sal’s death comes so easily once all the pieces fall into place and she readily accepts this “impossible” idea as fact. In short, time-traveling Marcus is Miranda’s equivalent of a green-haired family member. How I Live Now‘s Daisy never actually states or sees [SPOILERS] Edmond’s mind-reading abilities or Isaac and Piper gifts with animals as anything out of the ordinary, but rather treats them as things that simply “are.” I love how both Stead and Rosoff blend these elements into their narratives so seamlessly, and haven’t really encountered anything quite like this in YA Literature (save for Allende’s City of the Beasts and L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, of which When You Reach Me was partially inspired by).

Thoughts, anyone?



An Almost Top 10 List…

So, in reading When You Reach Me, I was inspired to search out what the Internet had to say about Young Adult Science Fiction, which is how I discovered this curious top 9 list I wanted to share with everyone.  Huffingtonpost created a list of the 9 Best Science Fiction Novels For Young Adults Besides Mockingjay, which really caught my attention.  Don’t get me wrong…I enjoyed the Hunger Games books, but I’d also love to expand students’ Sci-Fi reading lists to include some classics of the genre.

But since this is only a Top 9 list, I felt the need to include the Top Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults I am Most Nostalgic About.  They are not in order of preference, but these are 3 (technically 5 if you split the trilogy up…) Sci-Fi classics I’d recommend to young readers to throw into the mix:

1.  The Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher:


These are the first sci-fi books I read all on my own, and even though I was fairly young, I think that young adults, especially struggling readers would benefit from reading this series.  If not, it’s an awesome story about the nature of freedom and resistance to oppression with young adult protagonists attempting to overthrow their evil alien overlords!

2.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne:

20000 leagues

Ok, so the language may be a bit challenging for students, and it is quite long for some of our more attention-challenged readers.  However, it’s a tale of classic under-the-sea adventure that I found particularly engaging.  I know that when I finished reading it I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and this is something that I think is important for young readers to experience.

3.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


I thought this cover image was really awesome even though it wasn’t the one that I owned as a young adult.  But the story is incredible and the messages it contains are powerful.  In this story, set in dystopian future, firemen don’t put fires out…they start them.  Their target:  books.  This is a great story about the power and importance of books and the dangers of stifling the transformative power of literature.  Highly, highly recommended!




When You Reach Me: A Book of Questions?

Stead, 2009

Hi all:

I know you’ve all been here before: that moment of mental wandering when you try to imagine how you would summarize the book you just read, should you ever have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes this comes quite naturally. However, sometimes you get a book like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and (at least for me!) it’s a bit more challenging.

As I was sitting here contemplating the conundrum of how I would go about describing it, it occurred to me that part of my problem in finding the angle that would best describe it is that I’m not entirely certain what genre the book fits into.

Yes, yes, I know. I can look up online what the publishing houses choose to categorize it as just as readily as the next person, but this gentle story of a young girl coming of age in New York City with a single mother really seems to tell too much of a story to fit squarely into any one category. It’s not purely a coming-of-age story, nor is it simply a story about the challenges families face. Marcus introduces time travel into the equation, leading towards a science fiction bent, as do the regular references to protagonist Miranda’s favorite book, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but that’s not really what the story’s about, either. Despite friend triangles (Miranda-Annemarie-Julia and Miranda-Annemarie-Colin and even Miranda-Sal, to name a few), the book isn’t really just about friendships. The book addresses the issues of class (Annemarie’s doorman’d apartment building and Julia’s diamond ring v. Sal and Miranda’s tenement-style apartment building with hole-y furniture v. the laughing man’s “bed” under the mailbox), but doesn’t seem to dwell on them. It touches on racial concerns (Julia’s caramel/cafe au lait looks and Jimmy’s Indian background), but this is just one of many subpoints here. Are you starting to see where this is complex?

Perhaps the most constant question presented in the narrative is just that: questions. The book’s air of mystery is consistent, though it’s not really just mystery. Really, it’s questions. And the book itself does an intriguing job of breaking down it’s presented mysteries into bite-size question nuggets: who’s leaving notes, why Sal stopped being friends with Miranda, who stole Jimmy’s $2 bill jar, why did Marcus punch Sal in the stomach, why can’t Richard have an apartment key, Miranda’s mother’s preparation for and participation in the televised game show (which both require her superior ability to answer questions), and the many other unknowns throughout, all present an air of question to the story. These aren’t all necessarily mysteries, per se, but open question marks that Miranda–bit by bit–finds answers to or clues to help her better understand. I feel that the idea of clue-collecting in particular is especially essential to this story because–whether it’s a relationship, a weird event, a strange conversation, whatever–the constant seems to be missing pieces, which she eventually is able to put together. But that poses yet another question: can question answering be a genre? Personally, I think not.

As you read this book, what did you think? What theme(s) stood out the most to you? What genre would you place this in (assuming YA Lit isn’ t a proper genre, in and of itself)? Or do you have a different interpretation of the text?