Saturday, March 9, 2019

Thoughts about Magic in YA: Featuring the Rebellious Writing Team

Magic in YA tends to be a touchy business which divides Christian readers from secular readers. Just ask anyone who has gotten into a debate about Harry Potter.

This was an issue we, as an organization, ran into almost from the beginning. We wanted to appeal to both Christian and secular audiences. But since this was such a dividing issue, we had several discussions among the team members explaining each of our beliefs on magic, and some of it's effects of the YA genre.

At this moment, we have no defined stance on magic in YA. However, in this Roundtable discussion, we will outline our own personal viewpoints on magic. From there, we will draw a consensus stance, which will serve as our working stance on magic in YA. 

Gray Marie Cox
Founder, Blog Writer, Pinterest Coordinator, Assistant Goodreads Moderator

To me the real question is; where do we draw the line when it comes to fiction? The great thing about books and writing is that reality can be bent. One of my favorite books when I was younger was Tuesdays at the Castle, but a living castle and stuffed animals that can turn into mythical creatures isn’t realistic, so how does this work?

The answer is fiction, which is “a belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so”. The great thing about writing is that you create the rules.

A lot of stories start with the prompt “what if?”.

What if the government becomes corrupt to the point of forcing the people to rebel completely?
What if there’s a zombie apocalypse?
Or what if magic was real?

The most important thing when it comes to magic in fiction is, like most subjects, where we draw the line.

I’m okay with magic themes that are found in Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, or The Wizard of Oz, because in the end they have good morals and aren’t dark or alluding to a greater darkness. They stay within the realm of fiction because that’s what they are--fictional works created for our enjoyment and imaginations.

Faith Thompson
Blog Writer, Facebook Coordinator, Assistant Goodreads Moderator

I was raised on things like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many, many other fantastical works. Many of these stories feature magic. As a child, I never questioned the morality of magic; my parents never made it seem strange, and I simply loved the stories that involved it, partly because they were fantasy but also because they featured these things I knew could never be done in the real world.

I didn’t even know that broader debates existed in the world of readers as regards magic— not until I started reading Harry Potter. I knew there were other kids— among them my good friends— who weren’t allowed to read HP but I assumed that it was for the same reason my sisters couldn’t watch LotR. Too scary.

Knowing a bit more about magic and finding my own faith has led me to believe this about magic: It’s okay. If it is within the realm of another fantasy system, it’s okay. I’m more picky about magic here, in the real world—for example, I love Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, but there is some creepy magic use that makes me a bit uncomfortable within that story. Things like Harry Potter have never bothered me.

Essentially, I want to see good characters fighting for the light and overcoming darkness and evil. And if magic can contribute in some way to making the darkness heavier or the light shine brighter, than I want to see it.

Catherine Hawthorn
Blog Writer, Communications Manager, Blog Post Formatter, Assistant Goodreads Moderator, Book Scout Coordinator

I class “magic” as an act of supernatural force that can be used by either God, angels or demons. It’s one of those ambiguous terms that can confuse many people, depending on the usage of it. However, in most cases, it deals with the occult.

I’m firmly against alchemy, animation, illusions, duplication, shape-shifting, mediums, scrying, fortune-telling, shamans, summoning demons or other spirits, sorcery, necromancy, witchcraft, mages, warlocks or other such arts. Amulets, omens, seances, and Ouija boards are also big no-nos. Such dark magic can be used only by villains if it has to be present but it must be defeated in the end.

If any magic be present in books, I much prefer that the character be born with the power instead of having them learn. Being born with a power implies that a Creator infused the person with the power, rather than having them learn from a demonic source. I believe that magic should have limits. It can’t fix everything like a Divine Being can. There should also be limits on who practices it, and where.

In short, I take the views of magic held by the founders of Christian speculative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It’s a matter that needs kid gloves in order to not be singed by Satan.

Melissa Gravitis
Blog Writer, Twitter Coordinator

For me, whether or not magic is okay comes down to a simple question: What’s its source? The term magic itself is vague, but I understand it to be anything that we can’t explain by human or scientific powers, and have to look to spirituality or supernatural powers instead.

If you think of magic that way, imagine someone from another world coming to Earth and being blown away by singing. They can’t sing; none of their people have the ability. They can’t explain what they’re hearing or have any understanding of how to do it. To them, it would be magic. In fiction, if a group of people have been granted unique abilities and powers, in my opinion it’s the same situation, and reflective of how they were created. In which case, I’d love to read about them!

On the other hand, if characters draw power to manipulate and control through dark forces, for me this needs to be shown as dangerous and harmful. Never in any circumstance should playing with the world’s evil be depicted as harmless fun. So long as the book portrays magic from powers of darkness as what it truly is, I think it makes a powerful statement.

To sum it up, I enjoy reading about magic, but its source is key. If it comes from evil, then it should be shown as evil, but if magic is a way to describe a people group’s created abilities, then you’ve a wonderful story on hand!

Clare A.
Blog Writer, Blog Scheduler

I have always been encouraged to believe in magic. I always read fairy-tales and other stories including magic. I do believe that I am like Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. She believes in the magic of a new day, in beautiful scenery, and when her joy is beyond words her thoughts are for the magic and the beauty of it all. Her imagination knows no bounds.

That being said, she has been known to take it too far. That is where it gets tricky, where is too far?

I never even thought that magic could be bad. I was shocked when I learned that some people refused to read Harry Potter. I totally respect that, but I was just surprised because I had never considered it. I began to find fault in it and decided that I didn’t like it. I stuck through it to the end and, boy, am I glad that I did. The whole story goes far beyond where I ever thought, and it is amazing. There are some things in the Harry Potter books that I do not agree with, but overall it is a good read.

I used to pretty much only read Fantasy novels. The Chronicles of Narnia will always be my favorite though, they have such deep messages! I never found anything wrong with magic, and I always loved the battles of good vs. evil that showed that good always prevails. One day I stumbled across a book that was different. It involved evil spirits and ghosts in a way that I had never read and it sort of said that they were bad, not real, etc…. But it also had a final note that disturbed me.

Lately I have seen movies that have genuinely scared me because of the way magic was being used. I have decided to back away from those because suspense is good in books and movies, but being terrified is not.

So, what I have to say is that fantasy and magic in books and movies should make you happy, make you discover deeper meanings, and love the world for what it is.

Keturah Lamb
Blog Writer, Instagram Coordinator 

When I was a young teen I discovered fantasy through the works of Tolkien and Lewis and believed I was a fan of all fantasy, and told people so. This bothered my mom for quite a time as she was raised believing all fantasy was evil. I knew that Tolkien’s and Lewis’ books weren’t evil, but profound, enriching, and full of depth. But I didn’t know how to explain this to my mom for the longest time. I wanted to read fantasy, but I didn’t want to flippantly justify my reading material just because I liked it.

Finally, I came up with this. Magic in a fantasy world is just another way of saying miracles. It’s not really magic. It’s not of the devil, but a part of a fictional world. According to my theory, this made any sort of magic set in another world good and anything of this world bad. Meaning Harry Potter was out and Lord of The Rings was in.

But then I developed a strong interest in mythology. And that really worried my mom. And to be honest, I was a bit worried myself. I’ve always wanted to make sure what I read adds to my life and draws me closer to God, not Satan. But I didn’t know which mythology did for me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized there’s a balance to everything. And I’ve learned some more things about myself. I actually don’t like most fantasy. Most fantasy, in my opinion, is a rip off of Tolkien or Lewis, or the magic is just so dark it’s obviously not casting light into our lives. I’ve become so picky with what fantasy I’ll actually read (Jill Williamson and Brandon Sanderson are two of the few I can think of). But I also realized that I love to study and research. And while myths may be centered around gods/ demons in disguise, there is much to be learned from myths.

C. S. Lewis said, “A myth is a lie that conveys a truth.”

And, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things'.”

And he said so much more on myths because he also loved them and felt they were partially responsible for his salvation.

The thing is this; we are attracted to fantasy because it is spiritual. Spirituality is and should be of our first nature. We should be drawn to the supernatural, for it is what keeps us alive and gives us purpose. But even so, we should be careful. Because not all spiritual or supernatural things are of God’s spirit, but some are of Satan’s spirit.

And how do we differentiate the two? I think it will depend on the person and what he or she is taking from what they read. Are you learning? Or does your mind feel contaminated? Are you loving God and His Word more, or has man’s fantasy become more appealing to you? Do you love what God has created most (Earth) or do you wish with all your heart that you lived in Narnia (man’s myth). Is fantasy leading you down a darker path, toward witchcraft?

When I was younger I said I loved fantasy because it reminded me of Revelation.
But now I know that I dislike most fantasy because it is more akin to the Beast than to God, and I love only that which makes my life and mind more like Yeshua’s.

Julian Daventry
Blog Writer, Goodreads Coordinator

When I learn that there is magic in a book, there are a few things I want to know: is the author a Christian, or at least someone likely to handle the magic in a respectful manner (and not just throw in a bunch of dark magic because that's what cool)? Is the magic part of the structure of the story world? Is it something people are born with that they must learn to use? Or does the magic come from spells or potions? Did a character have to partake in some ritual in order to gain their powers?

Basically, does the magic have roots/origins that are dark or godless? Or are they simply part of the inner workings of the world? Especially with things like magic, there should be a line between good and evil, and doing good should NOT look like doing evil. (Like in The Hobbit movies, when Galadriel fights Sauron and looks like the "all shall love me and despair-this-is-what-happens-if-I-take-the-Ring" Galadriel glimpsed in The Lord of the Rings. I'm not against her showing her power, but I really think they should have made her all white and beautiful, not dark and creepy, in The Hobbit.)

If a book seems perfect, but has a magic system, I'm certainly not going to cross it off instantly. But if there are other things in the book that concern me, plus a magic system, I'm less likely to check it out.

Because, when it gets down to it, I prefer non-magic fantasy, not necessarily out of religious or moral concerns, but out of personal preference.

I feel like magic often gives authors/characters an easy way out. Is the MC trapped at the top of a tower, with the only exit guarded by enemies? Well, you can have the MC zap them all with some elemental fire or whatever, or you can have the MC attempt to fight, or give up and attempt to escape a prison cell later, or maybe he/she climbs down the side of the tower, or maybe the MC simply jumps. The latter options all have a little more excitement, IMO.

Secondly, I have a hard time connecting characters learning to harness elements or otherwise magic. I know I'm supposed to get some "learn to persevere" lesson from those situations, but I just...don't. I end up reading and being a bit bored. I'd much rather read about a character learning to sew, or fight with a sword, or scale a mountain.

Thirdly, I think characters in magical worlds tend to be overpowered at times. I get tired of all the characters wielding elements or being "completely invincible if they didn't have this traumatic past that they have to break through to become the BEST EVER." Give me a normal human struggling with normal human weaknesses any day.

Essentially: I don't mind magic in books, when done correctly. But I'm getting tired of magic and it's stereotypes.

 In Conclusion.....
"Where do we draw the line?" 

It can be safely said that Rebellious Writing approves of such magic that is found in The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Therefore, we are not totally against magic in YA. However, we are sensitive to the nature, source and effects of such magic - so we cannot approve all forms of magic in YA. 

As we developed our standards for rating books, we were unsure as to whether magic should be included in the list of rating categories. As you can see, many of us have strong opinions as to whether magic is appropriate and how it affects our personal ratings.

Categories such as Language, Abuse and Lust could easily be justified as they are natural concerns. We can see the immediate effects of such bad material in YA. Magic, on the other hand, is not nearly as clear-cut. 

In the end, because the nature of the argument is of spiritual concerns and not strictly natural, we decided to not include that as an actual rating category.  However, because of our strong Christian base, we started putting disclaimers on book reviews citing any magical concerns as we found them. Book Scout reviewers are also free to disclose any such concerns in their reviews.

We hope that this post clarified our stance on magic in YA, and that you enjoyed reading this discussion! Always remember to read and write rebelliously - together, we can beat the darkness! 


  1. Ooo, this was so interesting! I loved reading everyone’s thoughts on this issue!

    Personally, I’m undecided. I feel like “superpowers” type content are okay, but the whole “occult-magic-spells-potions” thing kind of unnerves me. As a lot of you said, where to draw the line? *shrugs* I’m not sure.

    1. Thank you so much Nicole!

      I can understand! It can be difficult when everything is all muddled like it is now. I say do a bit of research (I know you're Catholic, so see what the Church says about this issue!)

  2. Oh my goodness, this was SO great to read! Everyone's opinions make sense and are interesting to read. I'd say my views align most with Melissa's. :)

    Great job, guys! Everything is so clear and concise. *thumbs-up*

  3. I agree to disagree with this. Magic systems are so complex as it is that I don't think it's right to say there are "wrong" or "right" ways to write them, or that there is magic one should avoid. It also really depends on the story you are writing, dark fantasy, high fantasy etc. And what a character has, as a power, whether they be born with it or not. It's very hard to draw a line between "wrong" and "right" magic, and I personally do not think it is possible to do that.
    After all in one of my stories I have a witch-like character who uses her magic for good, despite how people have used that type of magic before.

    1. P.S. I do also have to disagree on the shapeshifters, multi-gods and psychic comment.
      Since those are actually things that happen in my stories, and I have characters who are gods, and main characters who actually have those powers.

    2. I take a much harsher stance than many of my colleagues because I don't view those elements as "good" things that bring a person up towards the One True God, which is my objective.
      I use objective morals to draw my "line". Having it be so subjective, I find, is rather confusing.