By Nawal Qarooni
Karla Valenti is the author of several books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed middle grade novel Loteria (Fall 2021) and the forthcoming picture books Esperanza Caramelo (Fall 2023) and Maria Mariposa (Spring 2024). She connected with educator and literacy coach Nawal Qarooni to chat about magical realism as a genre that is culturally-sustaining and allows opportunities for young people to reflect—perhaps with deep gratitude—on their lives.
Tell us a little about why you like magical realism as a genre.
I do like magical realism, but not just as a genre for storytelling. It has actually been an integral part of shaping my experience of living.
Let’s take a little trip back to Mexico City, circa 1970s. I lived in a house built around a tree. That alone was pretty spectacular. However, the tree was also protected by chaneques, mischievous sprite-like creatures of mythological lore, charged with being the guardians of nature. We never saw them, of course, and they were never threatening. But little things would happen around the house that served as constant reminders of their magical presence: items would suddenly vanish, some never to be seen again; some of those items would reappear the next day in the most unexpected places (like tucked neatly behind a planter); playful breezes would rustle the leaves of our indoor tree when there was not a whisper of wind outside.
While difficult to pinpoint the source, there was always a feel of magic in our home, the sense that we were sharing our space with something that transcended our everyday reality. That is magical realism.
To be clear, we weren’t living an experience that ignored the laws of physics and gravity and the natural world (no flying brooms or spells for us, at least none that actually worked). Rather, this “magic” was happening as part of our day-to-day ordinary life. But what makes this remarkable is that, in an important way, being aware of this magic actually enabled us to connect more deeply with our reality.
A good example of this in storytelling is my newest picture book Esperanza Caramelo, beautifully illustrated by Elisa Chavarri. The story takes place in an ordinary bakery where a lonely sugar figurine is brought to life by the touch of Nochebuena moonlight. Esperanza uses her “magic” to awaken the other sugar figurines placed atop a Christmas cake. But Esperanza’s magic doesn’t issue from a wand or incantations; hers is a magic grounded in reality and what it does is shine a closer lens on her experience of being alive and real (in this case, an experience of deep connection with others).
I always say that the teaching of literacy is actually the teaching of what it means to be human. Wouldn’t you agree?
Oh, I love that notion! Yes, absolutely. Literacy is a powerful tool that not only enables readers to learn more about themselves and others (the metaphorical window), but it allows them to be transformed by the world around them in profound and meaningful ways (opening a door into a new self).
When we dive into a story, we are invited to step into the shoes of another, to explore the world through their eyes, living their experiences as if they were our own. In a very real sense then, the story characters serve as a “safe haven” from within which we can experience a different facet of what it’s like to be human. This exercise not only expands our capacity for compassion and understanding, but it allows us to transcend our very selves.
Magical realism includes the idea that something bigger than us exists, right?
For me it does. But it’s not necessarily that it takes us beyond ourselves per se. Rather, it draws us further inward into our experience of reality.
Take fantasy, it is very similar as a genre to (and sometimes conflated with) magical realism. One key distinction, however, is that fantasy (which often involves creating new worlds with rules that don’t relate to our existence) is a tool that allows us to escape reality and immerse ourselves in a new world or setting. Fantasy is expansive in the sense that it broadens our scope of experience.
Magical realism, on the other hand, is firmly set in reality. We’re not escaping it, but rather diving more deeply into reality by connecting with the “magical” aspects that are integral to it. Magical realism is expansive in the sense that it broadens the depth of our experience.
As an example: my novel Loteria features both magical realism and fantasy. The story begins in Oaxaca City, Mexico where a young girl (Clara) is, unbeknownst to her, pulled into a high-stakes game of chance (Loteria) being played by Life and Death. As these ancient friends reveal the cards of the game, events unfold in Clara’s life over which she has no control and which are inexorably guiding her to a certain fate. All of this takes place in a real setting with a real man (Life) and his lovely companion (Death) sitting at a table under a lush jacaranda tree. This world includes people who have premonitory dreams (not unlike my father) and magical cooking (not unlike my abuelita) and unusually powerful healing skills. But none of this is out of the ordinary. Magical yes, but also real. And the reader, like Clara, is fully immersed in that reality (forcing them to expand the depth of their lived experience).
In the second half of the book however, Clara makes a choice that launches her into another realm, a fantasy realm. Here, all rules are off. Animals and roses can talk, keys unlock visions that were previously hidden, a king steals years of life from young children so he can be immortal. In the Kingdom of Las Pozas, the reader, like Clara, has been pulled out of the reality they know and is now wandering around a rather strange terrain (forcing them to expand the scope of their lived experiences).
Both magical realism and fantasy allow readers to broaden their experience in different ways. The former invites a deep dive, expanding your knowledge about yourself by looking more closely at the “magic” of reality. The latter allows readers to gain an outside-in perspective, inhabiting the space that exists beyond our reality.
Why is it important for students to learn about magical realism?
To read magical realism is to immerse ourselves in reality so deeply that we gain access to the true magic that lies within it.
To learn to write magical realism is to develop the skills to guide readers through an experience that promotes self-awareness and deeper connectedness to the world around them.
Both are extraordinarily rewarding!
Tell us a little about your background and why you write for young people.
I was born and raised in Mexico—a country of bright colors, melodic sounds, explosive flavors, wondrous stories, and plenty of MAGIC. A storyteller could hardly ask for a richer setting than that. However, I’ve also had the great fortune of living and immersing myself in other countries, including Japan, France, Germany, and the U.S. Each of these cultures has greatly contributed to the landscape of my storytelling.
Thematically, I have also always been intrigued by big philosophical concepts, particularly revolving around ideas of the self, identity, and human development.
Writing for young people allows me to create stories that combine both the cultural richness of my experiences with the exciting explorations of big questions. I write as an invitation to readers to think deeply about who they are and what the world is (e.g., the theme of Loteria is free will vs fate). In a very real sense, books can be a safe space allowing readers to access complex or novel experiences that are outside the scope of their lived experience. In this way, books are a transformational journey as a reader connects more deeply with their own reality.
Check out Karla’s books now and in the future:
- Loteria – Out now in paperback (Yearling, 2023).
- Esperanza Caramelo – Publication forthcoming in both English and Spanish (Knopf Penguin, 9/12/23).
- Maria Mariposa – Publication forthcoming (Chronicle).
- Legendarios – Chapter book series about twins, Emma and Martin who get pulled into a book of Mexican legends. This is a series about honoring one’s legacy and heritage, while still making space for change. Publication forthcoming (Simon and Schuster, 2024).
Karla is the author of the bestselling and highly-acclaimed middle grade novel, LOTERIA, as well as the forthcoming picture books, ESPERANZA CARAMELO and MARIA MARIPOSA and the chapter book series LEGENDARIOS. Her storytelling is seeded in Mexican culture and lore, and often deals in explorations of philosophical and identity-based themes (inspiring the mind) while also taking readers on riveting magical realist adventures (inspiring the heart). Karla currently lives in the Chicagoland area with her husband, three kids, and two very lazy cats. To learn more about her and her work, please visit: https://karlavalenti.com/
Nawal Qarooni is an educator and writer who works in learning spaces to support a holistic model of literacy instruction. She works with teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital and their intrinsic curiosities. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and mothering her four young kids shapes her understanding of teaching and learning. She is a former international newspaper reporter and currently a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books. In her daily literacy coaching and school-based support, Nawal draws on her years as a middle-grades classroom teacher and professional writer, as well as her love of photography and connection to nature. Her recent projects include a caregiver literacy series in Los Angeles schools, teaching undergraduate students at Brooklyn College, and researching and designing a family literacy program for Chicago Public Schools. Her forthcoming book on nourishing home and school literacy experiences is slated to be published at the end of this year. To learn more about her work, please visit NQCLiteracy.com.