Alice Hoffman on The Rules of Magic

Posted on 6th March 2015 by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman, author of the recently-published Nightbird, and the allure of magic in fiction.

As a child I preferred fairy tales to all other stories. Fairy tales seemed to trust that even as a child I could understand major concepts of good and evil, fear and cowardice, and distinguish the difference between the truth and a lie. Children realize that there are beasts who wish to do good in the world, and adults waiting in the woods who may be dangerous, and paths that should be marked, whether by bread crumbs or tears, so that we can find our way home again. In the world of fairy tales, the amazing is recounted in a matter of fact tone. One ordinary day there is a knock at the door, a rose that refuses die, a spindle that must be avoided at all costs

It was the melding of the magical and the everyday that was most affecting to me as a reader, for the world I lived in seemed much the same. Anything could happen. People you loved could disappear, through death or divorce; they could turn into heroes or beasts. Such stories are perhaps the original stories, tales told by grandmothers to grandchildren from the beginning of time, an oral tradition later captured in print by authors such as Perrault and the Grimms.

I began to read novels that, like the great traditional fairy tales, incorporated the real and the magical. Every child reader knows that magic equals power and possibility. It is the recourse of the young, the neglected, the orphaned, and the brave. Why are children attracted to magical literature? Magic contains a story within a story, the deepest truth within a thrilling tale. A child can build his or her own understanding through the symbols and language of magic as if connecting with a secret code.

For years magical fiction was looked down upon, set apart from real literature, but happily that is no longer the case. The resurgence of magic in books for children, brought about in large part by J.K. Rowling's novels, which, like the best fairy tales, read like a map of childhood, has opened the door for a new generation of magical literature. As a proponent of magic from the time I could read, I consider this to be a joyous time for literature. Interestingly, many adult readers are being brought back to the original literature of their youth, at first reading along with their children then choosing children’s and young adult literature for themselves.

In writing my novel for children Nightbird I realized I was writing for my ten year-old self. I was halfway through before I realized that ten year-old I once was is still the person I still carry within. Despite my age and experience, I am not unlike the main character Twig, self-conscious and book-mad, lost in some ways, and found in others. I am still the reader now that I was then, with the same heart and soul, and a longing for a world in which anything can happen, magic or not, on an ordinary day.


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