Navigating Magical Realms and Low Fantasy Worlds

Fantasy is a broad genre encompassing everything rooted in magic and generally set in a fictional world rather than reality. Magical realism and low fantasy are both fantasy subgenres and fall under the fantasy umbrella.

These genres are often inspired by folktales and children’s imagination which makes it especially popular for work geared toward children, teens and young adults. Imaginary friends, time travel, magical objects and mundane abilities could all be included in magical realism and low fantasy. In effect, it could be anything that adds some whimsy to daily life!

What’s the Difference?

The terms magical realism and low fantasy are often used interchangeably. They are similar as they both have fantastical elements to the story but aren’t fully-fledged fantasies. Both genres should take place in real, tangible places in our world such as a shopping mall, school, city or town. 

The main difference between magical realism and low fantasy is how they treat their fantasy elements. Magical realism takes a fantasy element and treats it as part of the norm. Low fantasy takes a fantasy element and treats it like a disruption of reality or a one-time occurrence. For instance, Matilda by Roald Dahl could fall under magical realism as Matilda’s exceptional abilities are treated as normal. However, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also by Roald Dahl, leans more toward the low fantasy subgenre since Willy Wonka's abilities and the fantastical events within his Chocolate Factory are treated as a disruption and only originate from the one magical location.  

Magical Realism

Magical Realism Tales cater to both older kids and teens, delving into themes of loss, resilience, and self-discovery. From the enchanting connection between life and miracles in 'The Miraculous' to the seamless integration of magic into the fabric of everyday existence in 'Hummingbird,' these stories explore the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Tales for Older Kids

The Miraculous

After losing his faith in miracles after the death of his newborn sister, 11-year-old Wunder Ellis meets a mysterious old woman who needs his help to reconnect the living and the dead, bringing himself and his town face-to-face with miracles.

Is the mysterious old woman a witch, or are miracles something more tangible? Magic and reality are the same in this novel.


Twelve-year-old Olive is attending school for the first time after being homeschooled her whole life due to her brittle bone disease. It’s harder than she expects – until she hears rumours of a magical hummingbird who can grant her every wish.

The magical hummingbird is treated like a normal part of everyday life.

When You Trap A Tiger

Lily and her family move back to her grandmother’s small town to help care for her. Her grandmother, whom she calls Halmoni, shares many Korean folktales. One day Lily meets a tiger straight from one of her Halmoni’s stories!

This novel is a great example of folktales being a catalyst and inspiration in the magical realism genre.

Tales for Teens

The Heartbreak Bakery

Syd is a baker working in Proud Muffin, a queer-owned bakery in Texas. After being dumped, Syd discovers Syd’s emotions are baked into the muffins and pastries Syd makes. Can Syd solve the fallout from the aptly named Breakup Brownies?

Syd isn’t the only person who has magical emotional baking skills and is an accepted reality within the baking world.

Black Girl Unlimited

This semi-autobiographical novel follows Echo and how she uses fantasy and the belief her family are wizards to cope with the harsh realities of poverty and abuse in this coming-of-age story.

This novel blends reality and fantasy in such a way that wizardry is normal within Echo’s family and part of her everyday life.

American Street

Fabiola and her mother immigrate to America from Haiti, but her mother is detained at the border. This high-stakes novel follows Fabiola and her family through adjusting to a new way of life and the challenges that come with it.

Fabiola possesses the ability to see the Iwa, or magic, in people. This novel blends Haitian Vodou with contemporary American life in an urban setting.

Fantasy Realms Explored

"Fantasy Realms Explored navigates enchanting landscapes for both older kids and teens. From the collaborative magic of 'Wishtree' and the extraordinary encounter in 'Skellig' for younger readers to the road trip through the Magical Retailers’ Convention in 'The Charmed List' and the enchanting letters in 'Everything All at Once' for teens, these tales seamlessly blend magical elements with the realities of forgiveness, friendship, and personal growth.

Realms for Older Kids


A special tree and a bird work together to help their new neighbours.

Katherine Applegate is known for her low fantasy novels. Wishtree is a great example of the kind of disruption you may see in low fantasy more broadly and takes place from the perspective of a tree. Check out her other titles like Crenshaw for more.


Michael finds a creature who is half bird and half angel in the garage of his new home.

Skellig is a strange man unlike anything seen in Michael’s regular day-to-day life and is treated as a unique one-of-a-kind creature.

The Insiders

Three students find a magical closet filled with what they need the most and connect them across state borders.

This coming-of-age story features a magical closet that comes and goes as needed as a vehicle to connect children in need. No other magic is depicted and the closet is a recurring disruption in reality.

Realms for Teens 

The Charmed List

Ellie and Jack are ex-best friends, but will a road trip to the Magical Retailers’ Convention be an opportunity to find forgiveness and rekindle their friendship?

The Charmed List takes readers on a journey to a magical world in the form of the Magical Retailer’s Convention while still being primarily rooted in reality.

Everything All at Once

Lottie inherits a series of letters from her Aunt Helen. The letters contain instructions to help Lottie overcome her anxieties.

Lottie’s Aunt Helen wasn’t a regular aunt – she was a witch! Her magic comes out in her letters and instructions.

Instructions for dancing

Evie has the gift to see other people’s happy (or not-so-happy) ever afters leaving her to become a total anti-romantic. Will a stranger at a dance studio be able to change her mind?

Evie possesses a rather mundane ability.

Other Subgenres

Some other subgenres of fantasy can fall into low fantasy and magical realism such as paranormal romance and urban fantasy. They are often (but not always) set in the real world which makes a great foundation for magical realism and low fantasy! Popular magical girl manga like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura could fall under urban fantasy. Paranormal romance YA series like Twilight and Shiver are good examples of how common - and popular - low fantasy genres can be.

Embracing Magic in Approachable Worlds

Low fantasy and magical realism can be a great way to dip your toes into the fantasy genre since they tend to be less daunting for a beginner than the full breadth and depth of worldbuilding often present in a high fantasy novel. Who wouldn’t want a little magic or wish fulfillment in their own lives? What kinds of things do you wish were part of your reality? You might find them in low fantasy or magical realism novels!

Be sure to check out this genre guide on NoveList for more examples, and happy reading!