By Chris Barton
It’s the oldest trick in the book business: Follow up a bestselling picture book about a goofy battle between a shark and a train with a YA nonfiction collection of ten profiles — all told in second person — of mostly obscure historical figures who pretended to be someone they weren’t.
The thing is, neither Shark Vs. Train (Little, Brown, 2010) nor Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities, illustrated by Paul Hoppe (Dial, 2011) is an aberration.
They’re both pretty indicative of the sorts of writing I like to do — unbridled silliness on one hand and carefully researched truth-telling on the other. And both lend themselves to school-visit presentations that I personally find to be a whole lot of fun — roaring GRRRRR! and CHUGRRR-CHUG! for the former, and for the latter recounting the story of how 16-year-old New Yorker Keron Thomas (nearly) got away with impersonating an A train motorman for three hours.
As with my first book, The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2009)– which originated with the obituary of inventor Bob Switzer — Can I See Your I.D.? had its genesis in something I read in The New York Times many years before I actually started writing.
In May 1993, I had just left New York after a semester there interning at Rolling Stone and Sassy magazines. I was slow to give up my habit of reading the Times, though, and my frequent use of the subway that spring meant that the headline “Subway Caper Fueled by Passion for Trains” was sure to grab my attention.
More than a dozen years later, Keron Thomas’ story was still lodged in my memory.
At some point along the way, I had written myself a note that maybe I would like to write something about John Howard Griffin, the white author who darkened his skin for a hellish tour of the American South documented in his book Black Like Me (1961).
Then I read in Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hilter’s Shadow (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) about Solomon Perel, a teenage German Jew who spent World War II under a fake name at a school for the budding Nazi elite.
Thomas, Griffin, and Perel had each, for his own reason, pretended to be someone he wasn’t, and that theme seemed like one I could have a heck of a good time exploring.
Frank Abagnale — the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)– came immediately to mind. So did Riley Weston, who a few years earlier had passed herself off as a 19-year-old (she was 32) to write for the TV show “Felicity” (1998-2002).
Other candidates quickly presented themselves: a surgery-performing high school dropout, a female Civil War soldier, the Klansman-turned-“Cherokee” author of The Education of Little Tree (Delacorte, 1976), a poor British woman who convinced members of the upper class that she was a kidnapped Asian princess, and a female slave from Georgia disguised as a white master for her escape.
I considered including male-impersonating musician Billy Tipton, but explaining in a book for young readers how “he” fooled his many wives was a challenge I just wasn’t up for.
Identity. That’s what this book is about, and it’s a theme that a YA audience, especially, can relate to. They’re at a point in their lives when “Who am I?” is neither an idle nor an uncommon question.
What I hoped would emerge from my research and my telling of these ten stories was an understanding — by both me and my readers — of the reasons a person would assume a false identity, the specifics involved in pulling off such fakery, and the psychic toll taken by that kind of deception.
I’m not telling the whole histories of these subjects, but rather key episodes in their lives that are supported by various forms of documentation. To more vividly bring these ten people to life, Can I See Your I.D.? relates their episodes in second person:
“If there had been trains on the island of Trinidad, where you lived until you were twelve, you might have gotten your thing for them out of your system by now. But there weren’t, and you didn’t, and that’s why you’re here at the 207th street subway station carrying a bag of motorman’s tools and signing someone else’s name.”
When I first got the idea to use second person for an entire nonfiction book, my reaction was a mix of “Oh, but I couldn’t” and “Oh, but I must.” Obviously, “must” won out, and I do think that this narrative approach allowed me to more closely understand what these people experienced, and to see how they must have been perceived by the people around them.
The trickiest profile to write in second person was that of Forrest Carter, the Little Tree author, who had died 12 years before the “key episode” I wanted to capture. For him, I ended up going with what I call “second person posthumous,” which was so much fun that I’m tempted to do a whole book that way.
But maybe just a picture book.
Can I See Your I.D.? Discussion Guide (and a few plot spoilers) from Chris Barton.
Guest Blogger Chris Barton: Wholly Embracing Reluctant Readers from Carol H. Rasco at Rasco from RIF. Peek: “I never received anything less than total support from Dial for my use of second person. Nor did I ever catch a whiff of anything other than respect for the audience we had in mind.”