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Impersonation in YA books

2012 November 16
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I’ve noticed quite a few new YA books lately featuring characters impersonating one another. Twins, usually identical, where one’s good and the other’s bad, have long been a staple in literature, movies, and TV. Last year’s cancelled TV series Ringer, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, is just one recent example. The types of stories I’ve always loved are those where the characters are look-alikes, but not necessarily related to each other like those in the classics: Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I have to admit I’m a huge movie fan, and, with the exception of Dickens and Twain, I saw the movies of these classics instead of reading the books, but I know the plots are very similar.

I guess I’m not the only person who likes these types of stories. Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, a 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee, has a similar plot. Four orphans are forced by one of the King’s regents to compete against each other to successfully impersonate the King’s long-missing son to prevent a civil war with the neighboring lands. Only one will be selected and the others know they’ll be killed if they don’t succeed. None of the four teens look exactly like the missing prince, but they all have enough of a resemblance to pass for him. What they don’t know is that they weren’t told everything and the truth is more dangerous than they could have imagined. The second book in the Ascendance trilogy, The Runaway King, is due out in March 2013.

Chris Wooding’s graphic novel, Pandemonium, features Seifer, a winged bat-like teen who’s kidnapped by palace staff and forced stand in for cruel Prince Talon, whom he resembles. This tongue-in-cheek fantasy set in the Darkling Realm features a less-than-courageous teen who must learn palace etiquette and befriend a suspicious monster cat and other horrors — including an arranged marriage — all while trying to save the kingdom from invasion. Of course he also falls for a  spirited girl with magical powers and discovers that he possesses hidden talents as well. The full-color illustrations by artist Cassandra Diaz effectively evoke the fast-paced action of this fun story.

The beautiful cover of Michele Jaffe’s Ghost Flower will attract readers to the irresistible story of  Eve, a runaway who agrees to impersonate a girl named Aurora who disappeared 3 years before in order to help her cousins gain their inheritance. Eve finds herself haunted by the ghost of Aurora’s best friend who died the night Aurora went missing. Eve must find out what happened to Aurora before she becomes the next victim.

Another story that involves impersonation and family inheritance is only available as an ebook. I admit I didn’t get the chance to read much of it but it sounds very intriguing. Anna Maria L. Crum’s Snake Talker, written for adults and older teens, is about an eighteen-year-old scam artist named Griz who discovers impersonating the lost heir could have deadly consequences when he is kidnapped and taken to the planet Habu. Like all stories of people impersonating others, he has to pass a series of dangerous tests to prove he’s the true heir.

Not all impersonation novels involve royal families and inheritances. In Jenny Valentine’s Double, Chap, 16, a homeless London teen, gets mistaken for a missing boy named Cassiel, so he goes along with it. He realizes it’s much harder and more dangerous to pretend to be someone else than he thought. He learns the hard way that, “You can’t just steal a life and expect to get away with it.”

Another unique twist on the theme of impersonation is David Levithan’s Every Day. “A” wakes up every day in the body of a different 16-year-old teen. Each day it’s a different body, male or female, with a different life, never the same person twice. “A” can only access facts about a person, not their feelings such as whether they like something or not. Every day “A” must try to figure out how to be that person just for one day and get away with it without being discovered.

There are a lot of variations of the impersonator/imposters theme, such as characters who are spies with aliases who impersonate others like Queenie and Maddie in Elizabeth Wein’s WWII spy novel Code Name Verity or Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta, in which Froi pretends to be someone else to infiltrate a kingdom to assassinate the king. Not to mention all the stories where females pretend to be males in order to go to war or to sea on ships in historical fiction tales (e.g., Jacky Faber in L. A. Meyer’s series). One of my favorite French films is The Return of Martin Guere, which is about a man who returns from war to his family but may not actually be who he says he is (the American remake is Sommersby with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster).

There are so many other YA books that involve impersonation in some way I could name, but I will have to continue that in future posts. If you think of other books on this topic, feel free to let me know.

– Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Dodger by Terry Pratchett

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