The best middle grade books that conjure up magical realism

David J. Naiman Author Of Jake, Lucid Dreamer
By David J. Naiman

Who am I?

When I was a child, I searched for books that resonated with me. Fantasy was escapist fun but bore little relevance to my life. Realistic fiction often did but lacked the imagination I craved. When I read a book about a boy who wins a magic ticket to a chocolate factory and enters a whimsical yet shockingly dangerous world, I was hooked. Magical realism books take place in the real world but have an extraordinary element that drives the story. They shake up the mundane to expose the fantastic lurking within. This is where I turned to write my stories.

I wrote...

Jake, Lucid Dreamer

By David J. Naiman,

Book cover of Jake, Lucid Dreamer

What is my book about?

12-year-old Jake has been suppressing his heartbreak over the loss of his mother for the past four years. But his emotions have a way of haunting his dreams and bubbling to the surface when he least expects it. When Jake learns how to take control in his dreams, he becomes a lucid dreamer, and that’s when the battle really heats up.

As someone who has experienced the loss of a parent as a child, I wanted to portray the simmering anger that swells when you suppress your emotions. I used magical realism to describe that inner struggle in an active and exciting way for both young and adult readers.

The books I picked & why

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By Katherine Applegate,

Book cover of Crenshaw

Why this book?

When 11-year-old Jackson faces recurrent anxiety after his life is disrupted by financial hardship, his old imaginary friend, a giant purple cat named Crenshaw, reappears. Within the fantasy, Applegate addresses serious issues including homelessness, food insecurity, and disability.

Children turning to their imagination to find inner strength is a theme I found relatable. Empathy oozes into your fingertips with every page.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

By Neil Gaiman, Elise Hurst (illustrator),

Book cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Why this book?

A middle-aged man, adrift in life, returns to his childhood home to center himself and reminisce about the strange events once encountered by his 7-year-old self. The story takes place in an isolated English countryside rife with the gentle melancholy of nostalgia. But within its depths lies absolute terror.

“Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters.”

Initially written as a short story, it expanded into a novella, as stories are wont to do when they have so much more to say. Gaiman is a master at using magical realism to balance fantasy and horror.

Ghost Boys

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Book cover of Ghost Boys

Why this book?

12-year-old Jerome, a Black boy shot by a White police officer, tells his story in alternating sections before and after his death. Jerome finds his purpose as a Ghost Boy after he realizes the only living person he can communicate with is Sarah, the daughter of the cop who shot him.

Rhodes uses magical realism to create a connection and explore a conversation that would otherwise be impossible. She tackles the controversial topic with moderation appropriate for young readers while still packing a powerful emotional punch.

When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead,

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

12-year-old Miranda receives notes from an inscrutable person from the future trying to save one of her friends. This is both a beautifully written time travel mystery and a starkly realistic novel set in 1979 New York City, tackling topics as diverse as prison reform, single mothers, and racism.

That the story can be both things, seamlessly and without contradiction, makes the novel an elegant example of magical realism.

James and the Giant Peach

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of James and the Giant Peach

Why this book?

Life is bleak for James, an orphaned boy trapped with unloving aunts, until he comes across an old man with a bag of crocodile tongues. This leads to a journey across the Atlantic inside a giant peach.

I especially love this book because it was Dahl’s first, written after he completed his stint as a British spy in America during WWII and before he emerged as a celebrated children’s author. The many absurd poems recited by human-sized Centipede reflect the (much bawdier) poems Dahl exchanged with friends during the war.

“I’ve eaten many strange and scrumptious dishes in my time / Like jellied gnats and dandyprats and earwigs cooked in slime”

Dahl’s whimsical exuberance has inspired me and generations of children and adults alike.

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