Writing Kidlit Magical Realism


Gene Wolfe advises young writers at the Shared Worlds camp. Via BuzzFeed

Today, I stumbled across this piece of writing advice from sci-fi writer Gene Wolfe. “Start the next book.”

Yikes! I’m still editing The Temple of Lost Time with my ASA mentor. I just finished an epic overhaul involving the wholesale slaughter of darlings and ruthless culling of scenes that slimmed my pudgy 66,000-word manuscript down to a lean 54,000 words with a taut-n-terrific middle. Next we polish.

I can’t possibly start something else.

Can I?

I’ve been reluctant to work on multiple writing projects at once. What if I mix up characters or lose the voice of one work or do something stupid with the files?

Erm, no. I’ve realised two things. First, it’s unlikely that I’d have two manuscripts at the same stage of development. The kind of thinking and energy required in pre-writing is very different to that of outlining, drafting, revising and finessing.

Second, I will not manage to create a significant body of work if I maintain my current ambling pace. Just as stores need stock to sell, serious writers need finished works. It’s time for me to shift gears to generate more stories.

Off the Back Burner

My Graceland (working title) project is so exciting I’m almost giggling at the prospect of sticking my fingers into its gooey belly. After some 12 months of preparatory mulling and reading, I have a protagonist named Tallulah and a cast of odd-bod characters, a cool setting I can’t wait to explore, an intriguing genre, and the first shreds of research.


Graceland will be a contemporary middle-grade coming-of-age story with a dusting of magical realism. I want to create a story that feels like Roald Dahl’s Matilda—funny and poignant, filled with heartbreak and hope, but with a darker, issue-laden backdrop. The Secret Life of Bees comes to mind, but my protagonist will be 12 or 13, a year or two younger than Lily Owens in Bees. And I want some wry Aussie humour to buoy it. Think: Cloudstreet for kids.

Why Magical Realism?

We all know the adage: Write the book you want to read. Well, the book I just described is exactly what I want to read. If I l lined my favourites on a shelf, I would see a trend – a strong leaning toward magical realism, which I love because it’s atmospheric. Think of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Skellig by David Almond

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Even elements of The Secret Garden could be considered magical realism.

The bigger question is what is magical realism. It’s a valid question, because just about everyone—including authors, agents and editors—is confused.  It’s no wonder: magical realism is by nature vague. Simply put, it portrays a mundane world where magical (or miraculous) things happen without question or explanation.

 “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” – Luis Leal

I have been reading up on the genre for a while now to prepare myself. I hope I can pull it off. It takes a light touch to get the balance of realism and magic right—subtle yet substantial. It can’t be tinsel and bobbles tossed on at the end. It has to lie in the warp and weft of the story. More reading is required. With any luck, I’ll absorb ‘it’ by osmosis.

Really Good Magical Realism Resources

Lindsay Moore‘s Magical Realism article on the Emory Postcolonial Studies site presents a brief academic overview with two examples and a useful list of characteristics.

How about an academic  article that refers specifically to magical realism in children’s literature? In particular, David Almond’s Skellig. Don Latham’s paper is insightful. Particularly useful are the references to Wendy Faris’s five characteristics of magical realism. What a find this was! It came from a site called Alice’s Academy, which is an off-shoot of The Looking Glass: New Perspectives in Children’s Literature, a database which is now hosted by Australia’s La Trobe University. #RabbitHoleWarning!

Agent-Editor-Author Michelle Witte has a 5-part series that unpacks magical realism and gives some examples of texts. She boils it down to “ordinary events with a touch of the extraordinary.” Michelle’s series is comprehensive and avoids getting bogged down in the political and historical roots of the genre/movement. Those are interesting and valid points, but they don’t help with creativity.

Ted Gioia, a world authority on jazz and books, covers the latter on one of his sites, Conceptual Fiction. One year, he completed A Year of Magical Reading, reading and reviewing a book a week that incorporates elements of fantasy, magic, or the surreal. Use this one to find well-written reviews on what Ted calls Conceptual Fiction, which is literary genre fiction. I spent a couple of hours browsing his virtual shelves. #RabbitHoleWarning!

My Goodreads Magical Realism shelf  has over thirty titles to consider. Take a look if you’re looking for titles for kids or adults. Or the HuffPost has nine suggestions for grown-ups.

[I will add more resources as I find them.]

Going to Graceland

Now that I’ve given myself permission to work on Graceland, I’ll continue reading magical realism for grownups and children. I’ll research elements of the story (setting, themes, etc) in earnest, looking for my propelling nugget of goodness or PNG, a deliciously quirky fact that makes my story take off. And I’ll start planning my character arcs working toward an outline…

…All while polishing the other MS, The Temple of Lost Time.

Over to You

Do you have a favourite magical realism title? What do you think about working on more than one project at a time? Got any tips?

Image Credits

Gene Wolfe’s hand via BuzzFeed

Record Store by Yaroslav Blokhin via Unsplash

Staying Ground by Rob Potter via Unsplash

My Epic Poetic Odyssey – October


October’s Poem

Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud‘ is the poem I’ll memorise in October. I’m two months into my Epic Poetic Odyssey, in which I commit a poem a month to memory.

Why? Personal enrichment, brain exercise, and to practise a cool party trick. Poetry memorisation is good for the brain and the soul. If I’m lucky, I’ll acquire a life-long habit, and maybe even develop a poetic sensibility.


October is for falling leaves and pumpkins, right? Not in the Southern Hemisphere where I live! It’s funny—even after nearly thirty years of living Down Under, I still thought of autumn when I was picking this month’s poem.

It’s spring here, and the jacarandas are exploding in a soft purple haze. Colour is peeking out of every corner of my garden. Even my house plants are showing off. I wanted a poem about flowers, and this one is perfect.

After September‘s bleak and heavy poem, I also wanted something light, like skipping through a field of brilliant yellow flowers!

I’ll be back at the end of the month, when Wordsworth’s words have become part of me.

Happy spring – or autumn, wherever you may be!


Over to You

Got a favourite poem? Let me know in the comments!

Image Credits

Stefanos Kogkos via Unsplash, modified by the author

Annie Spratt via Unsplash

My Epic Poetic Odyssey – First Poem

Say what? “The falcon cannot hear the falconer…” 

I’ve reached my goal for the first month of my Epic Poetic Odyssey. September’s poem, ‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats, has been laid down in my synapses.

In my quest for personal and literary enrichment, I have embarked on a program of memorising a poem a month. Even though I’m in the early days of this quest, I’m already reaping unexpected rewards.

New Friends

One of the loveliest windfalls has been meeting new people, like Shirley, a lovely lady named who contacted me through my Ali Stegert Facebook page. Retired teacher Shirley describes herself as a ‘literature tragic and iPad fanatic.’ She originally set out to memorise ten poems, and she’s now on her 87th now! She’s set a new goal of memorising 100 poems. Such an inspiration! Keep an eye out for my upcoming posts that feature Shirley and other poetry loving people I meet on my way.

Shirley’s top tip for memorising poetry was to look for and follow the line of thought. I tried this out and it worked. I memorised ‘The Second Coming’ within three or four days. The rest of the month I worked on fluency.

September’s Poem

‘The Second Coming’ speaks of a world spinning out of control, which resonates with me. Although the poem is grim, I find it reassuring to know that the current ‘falling apart’ in the political arena has happened before and yet life goes on. The poem was published in 1919*, which means Yeats probably worked on it in 1918 or even earlier, possibly in the chaos leading up to and during WWI.

So far, I have resisted my new-found urge to recite poetry in the middle of conversations, much to the relief of my family, but almost every time I watch the news, these lines burn in my mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; | Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;| The best lack all conviction while the worst | Are full of passionate intensity.

The Poet’s Intention

Reading up on the Nobel Prize for Literature winner Yeats, I found out that what he meant in the poem and what I ‘heard’ are two very different things. Although the language and themes of the poem are familiar and Biblical-sounding to me, Yeats apparently held more to mysticism, magic and occult spiritualism than Christianity. He was a wild-minded poet and statesman who espoused some unorthodox philosophies and original theories. For example, the ‘gyre’ of the poem is not a metaphor for a world spiralling out of control as I thought. Yeats propounded gyres as a historical phenomenon, something that accompanies ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or the spirit of the world, in his complex mystical theory.

So, there’s the poet’s intention and my reading of it. Does this mean I read it wrongly and that I should always check the poet’s background and beliefs? Or does it mean that good poetry is good because it speaks on different levels at different times. I still like the poem, but I have no intention of adopting a mystical belief in ‘gyres.’

What Was I Thinking?

Boy, do I regret my promise to post a video of me reciting each month’s poem. As someone who dislikes even being photographed let alone being filmed, I’m cringing as I post this. I have almost no experience with editing and uploading videos. However, I’ve decided to suck it up and see this as another area for personal growth and professional development. Here’s hoping my performance, recording and broadcasting skills improve over the next 12 months! (Bear with me! You’ve got to start somewhere, right?)

The wind started howling right at the line about the ‘reeling shadows of indignant desert birds’. I cracked an incongruent smile right at the poem’s most dramatic and bleak moment. Many thanks to my inspiring writer friend Debbie Smith, who videoed me and didn’t laugh.

I promise—without the added pressure of being filmed I can recite the poem fluently! (I got a couple words wrong).

Forward Ho!

I have narrowed down a list of poems for October. I’ll share my choice next week, so stay tuned. And remember, I’d love to have your company on my Epic Poetic Odyssey. You don’t have to commit to 12 months! Jump in and out at any time! I can tell you from experience that one poem in a month is not hard.

So, what do you think? Have you got any tips on memorising or reciting poetry? Know of any good resources on making nice videos? Please leave a comment!

Image Credit:

Giovanni Calia via Unsplash

Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Modified by the author

*Another source said the poem appeared in 1921.



Book Fairy for a Day


18 September was International Hide a Book Day, giving book lovers around the world the opportunity to unselfishly spread the joy of reading by hiding a book in a public spot. Naturally, I didn’t miss the opportunity to don my fairy wings for 24 hours.

I do believe in book fairies. I DO believe in book fairies, I DO!

Having trouble believing Book Fairies exist? Consider this:

  • A logo is sure proof of existence, right?
  • These Book Fairies are tech-savvy: they have a website. If you don’t believe me, click this link> I Believe in Book Fairies. Think about it: How could something unreal have a website with an About page, FAQs, and merch, for goodness sake?
  • And they have regional Facebook pages, like this one in Australia.
  • And if nothing else convinces you that Book Fairies are real, consider this indisputable fact: The Chief Fairy is a lady named Cordelia, which is the most fairy-like name imaginable. Cordelia.

Book Fairies are real—real people who share their love of reading by hiding books in public places for people to find, enjoy, and re-hide. No wings are necessary—just a willingness to part with a favourite book.

Spreading Reading Rainbows Everywhere

The Book Fairies helped Goodreads celebrate their tenth birthday this year. All around the world, bewinged book worms carefully selected and prepared a book to launch into the wilderness on Hide a Book Day. The Book Fairies HQ provided stickers so that when the unsuspecting citizen finds the book, they understand that they are meant to take it home, read it, and then pass it on.

My First Book Fairy Release

After scouring my shelves, I selected  The Ratcatcher’s Daughter  by Pamela Rushby. I thought it would be fitting to pick an Aussie author and a book with local interest. The Ratcatcher’s Daughter is middle-grade historical fiction set in 1900 when the Black Death first came to Queensland. There were subsequent outbreaks of the bubonic plague for the next nine years and then again in 1921 and 1922.

Rushby relates the history through the story of fictional 13-year-old Issie McKelvie, whose dad is the local ratcatcher. She loathes rats and her dad’s pack of yappy dogs. But when dad gets sick, Issie has to step in and do the dirty work to save Brisbane from the vermin that are spreading disease and death.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter received several awards, including the CBCA Notable Book 2015,  Highly Commended in the Davitt Awards 2015, and being shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards 2014. Pam has published a slew of educational books and commercial fiction. She lives in Queensland and says she gets her best story ideas while swimming laps.

Although it was hard to part with my copy of the book, I was keen for others to read this fascinating slice of Queensland history. I penned a personal note to the finder, tucked it inside, and left the book among the magazines and lifestyle books in a beautiful tea house on the Sunshine Coast. Giving away my book made me happy!

Fairying All Year Long

You don’t have to wait until the next Hide a Book Day to join the book sharing revolution. Join the ranks of fairies, which includes Emma Watson. Visit The Book Fairies’ website, buy some stickers, and start sharing!

Would you consider being a Book Fairy for a day? I’d love to know which book you think is worth sharing, so leave a comment!

#HideABookDay #GoodreadsTurns10 #ibelieveinbookfairies #AustralianBookFairies

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank The Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is one of the freshest stories I’ve read in years. If you love fairy tales, strong storytelling, lyrical writing and a bit of quirkiness, this is the book for you.

My top ten reasons to love The Girl Who Drank the Moon:

1. Wonderfully weird  –  It is a quirky blend of dark fantasy and humour, a super cool blend of ~Oooh~ and HA! It’s a story that tugs your heart-strings and tickles your sides. The lyrical prose soothes while the stark truths stab you in the heart. It’s disturbing, entertaining, heartwarming, intriguing, satisfying … and plain old good.

2. Adorable characters:

  • My Luna – A Mini Foxie x Jack Russell Terrier.

    Luna – How can you not feel for this kid? She’s literally out of control, but she’s so lovable and feisty and unique. Nevertheless, steps must be taken to contain the child, and the effects are drastic and rather sad. It’s reminiscent of  how kids today are medicated with psychotropic drugs like Ritalin. I know (professionally) such medications can be helpful and are (sometimes) necessary, but what’s lost? Are those losses quantifiable? Are they retrievable? Laying aside the big philosophical and ethical issues of sedating children, the real reason I was attracted to this book was the protagonist’s name. Luna! It’s such a pretty name. (Luna is my darling little doggie’s name. When I saw “Luna” in the book’s summary, I  knew this was a book for me!)

  • Fyrion, the stunted dragon who believes he’s enormous, is completely endearing. He had some of the funniest lines in the book. I liked him so much I want to name a future pet Fyrion, but it would have to be a reptile, and I can’t go there so…
  • Xan the misunderstood old witch. What a great character. Generous, kind and principled—and she makes mistakes.
  • Glerk, the swamp monster-poet and theologian  is so steadfast, so stable.
    Put the four together, sprinkle some Kelly Barnhill brand pixie dust, and KaPOW! Magic and delight on the pages.

3. Fantastic world building – “In the beginning was the bog … the bog is the poet and the poet is the bog …” Sounds silly here, but in the world of the book, the swamp monster’s origin story was perfect. Then there’s the wood and the bog and the volcano. The dreadful history of the Protectorate. The Sorrow Eater’s spectre. Magic that thrums and glows in Technicolor with flashes of silver. The shameful politics! So much to admire.

4. The lyrical writing – I noticed quite a few reviewers who tired of the writer’s repetition. It is true that the author’s makes great use of repetition, but it’s not arbitrary. The Mad Woman repeats, “She is here, she is here, she is here. ” It’s both a symptom of her madness and a device in the book. It was cleverly used, when her daughter picked up the phrase. To the nay-sayers, I suggest they “hear” the prose rather than just read it. It sounds sublime. Listen to the audiobook to experience the musicality of the prose. You may change your mind.

5. And speaking of the audiobook, the narration was pitch-perfect. Narrator Christina Moore gives a  stupendous performance. It was beguiling and heart-rending and joyful. A lot of my attraction to Xan had to do with the narrator’s voice. There was something beguiling about Xan’s voice. I rarely pick audio books by the narrator, but I will definitely look for out for her.

6. The storytelling – intriguing, exciting, and ultimately satisfying.

7. The cover –  Oh.my.bog. (a little in-text joke there, not a typo) The cover. It’s tantalising!

8. The words – Kelly Barnhill  lavishes beautiful, challenging words on her young readers. (She says she had fifth graders in mind when she wrote it. I love that she extends rather than simplifies.) This book may make its readers into logophiles.

9. The fluid concept of family – This story portrays different types of families. I especially like the “family” of Xan, Fyrion, Glerk and Luna. The ending of story initiates a beautiful new family constellation (I’m treading carefully to avoid spoilers…). Kids in adoptive, kinship or foster homes may be able to relate and find encouragement in the variety of loving, positive arrangements the book portrays.

10. Uplifting themes – Love and hope triumph over malice and sorrow. More than ever before, in this shifty, grey age of fake news and imploding politics, we need stories of hope and love .

How Good?

4.7 stars good. A few niggly little things made me scratch my head, but none was serious enough to mar my enjoyment of the book.

I have ordered a physical copy for my favourites shelf — that’s how good.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Read (and like) more of my reviews on Goodreads.

Image Credit

Flock of Geese, Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Book Review: Big Magic – Creativity Explored

Big Magic is one of those books that every creative should read. Full of insight, ideas, encouragement—it’s worth keeping a copy on the writer’s desk next to the dictionary, style guide, and Strunk & White.

Gilbert’s take on a few topics was so fresh and true that I teared up. She put words around an elusive struggle of the creative process, and I found it comforting to have it articulated so beautifully. But don’t get me wrong: it’s not mamby-pamby, self-help slop. She has mined the travails of her own creative life and brought out some gems to share. Some are wrapped in kindness, others are tough love with a swift butt-kick thrown in for good measure. I didn’t resonate with everything, but the bits that got me, got me good.

I especially appreciated her thoughts about burdening one’s creativity with the job of earning a living. She’s big on not quitting your job. All in all, Big Magic is a keeper, and it’s probably a book I will give as a gift to aspiring creatives.

On a final note, I listened to the excellent audio version narrated by the author, but I would recommend instead buying a physical copy to allow for thumbing through in moments of creative confusion or artistic desperation.

View all of my Goodreads reviews.