When Reality Isn’t Enough by Shannon Takaoka
Ever since I was young, I’ve always been drawn to stories that are a bit off kilter and weird. Stories that depart, in some way, from the “real world.” Give me all the kids raised in graveyards, the mysterious doppelgängers, the characters who slip in and out of time. I don’t know why this is, exactly. Maybe it’s because my grandmother told me ghost stories when I was little, stories that she insisted had actually happened to her. Back in Czechoslovakia, when she was a girl, she claimed that one time she saw a headless spirit in the woods. She heard “limbo babies” crying in the night to be baptized. The tattered black cat that used to show up on her family’s doorstep? Cursed. And although her stories scared me a little, I also wanted them to be true. The childhood she described sounded fantastical and strange, like something out of a dark fairytale. I wanted my childhood to be fantastical too, full of secret passages and treasure maps and magical rings. A closet that only held clothes, instead of one that was a portal to another world? Boring. And what good was an abandoned house if it couldn’t be haunted?
But most of the time, the reality of my childhood consisted of a series of predictable routines. School. Homework. Weekend dinners at my grandma’s, where, ghost stories or no, she rarely deviated from her usual dish: roast beef, mashed potatoes and slightly overcooked green beans. And then there was church, which I had to attend every Sunday no matter what. The script of the Catholic mass changed little from week to week, and in the midst of all the standing, sitting and kneeling, my eyes and mind would wander to the stained glass, where the colorful scenes in them depicted miracles and martyred saints. My favorite, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the window that featured St. George, mainly because of the vivid green dragon he was in the process of slaying, all fire and scales and teeth. So when I wanted an escape from boring old reality, I chose books that would take me as far from reality as I could get. To Narnia and Middle Earth. Across space and time with Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who. I could leave the real world behind for a bit and imagine myself as a hobbit able to outsmart trolls and giant spiders or a girl rescuing her beloved father from another dimension.
By my middle school years, however, it felt like I had decided that dragons and portals and magical kingdoms were, perhaps, “not cool” for my age. (I know, I know, they are 100 percent cool for any age, but middle school can mess with your head.) I’d determined it was time for me to leave the fantastical behind and read about real people, doing real things. Like impossibly beautiful identical twins and their many, many romantic entanglements. I ate up the Sweet Valley High series like candy, but realize now that I liked it precisely because the Wakefield twins and their bonkers storylines – Comas! Murder mysteries! Mistaken identities! – were just as much a departure from the “real world” as any high fantasy. I was painfully shy in middle and high school. Painfully. I didn’t get invited to many parties. My Saturday nights were usually spent at home, in my room, my lazy cat Muffin curled at the foot of my bed, book in my lap, wondering what I was missing. There were times when I wished with all my heart that I could slip into another version of myself, the “bad-twin” version, who was way more interesting and confident than the girl who always got good grades, went to church every Sunday and never broke the rules.
But with fiction, you can break whatever rules you want. You can ask countless “What ifs.” What if you could travel back and forth in time? What if you could see the future? What if monsters were real? What if another version of yourself existed in a reality that was almost like yours… almost, but not quite? What if… what if… what if… It’s fun to imagine all the possibilities. Though I think there’s more to it than that. My theory is that in breaking out of what’s “real,” we are trying to get a better handle on why reality is the way it is. Why are we here? What’s our purpose? What’s this life of ours all about anyway? Stories help us understand ourselves. And if I can’t literally slip into a cooler version of myself in an alternate reality, for example, or live forever, or change the past, then I better get going on making the most of the me that hangs out in this plane of existence.
Eventually, I graduated from Sweet Valley High and found my way to Edgar Allen Poe, to Shakespeare and Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. And later, to Margaret Atwood’s and Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopias. To Shirley Jackson’s, Neil Gaiman’s and Toni Morrison’s ghosts. Every book I’ve read has, in some way, big or small, made me think about the world we live in or think about who I want to be or how I want to spend this life of mine. Those not-quite realities have shaped how I view my own.
And one of the things I always wanted to do in this reality is write my version of “What if.” Finally, after a lot of trial and error, I did.
I promise that it’s a little weird. But in a good way.
Shannon Takaoka is a young adult fiction author who loves books (of course) and all things nerdy. (Time travel? Weird science-y stuff? Alternate realities? Yes, please.) She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family, where she also works as a business writer and editor. Her debut novel, Everything I Thought I Knew, about a 17-year-old girl questioning everything about who she is and who she wants to be following a heart transplant, releases 10/13/2020 from Candlewick Press and in 2021 from Walker UK. Find her online at www.shannontakaokawrites.com, @shannontakaoka (Twitter) and @shannontakaokawrites (Instagram).