Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s latest middle-grade novel takes readers to an alternate version of Saint John, New Brunswick, where one per cent of the population are Copycats – beings that can magically transform into whatever human or animal they want. While cool, this superpower has its complications, as Copycats must hide their skills from regular humans to avoid becoming subjects of scientific experiments.
Ali Sloane, the 12-year-old heroine, has lived her entire life guarding the fact that her dad, Digger, is a Copycat. Digger spends half of his time in the form of a dog and the other half as a struggling artist. Not only has keeping this secret left Ali feeling alienated from kids her age, but it’s kept the family penniless and constantly moving from town to town. Now in Saint John – with Ali attending her ninth school – the family has moved in with Digger’s grandmother, Gigi, to help the elderly woman with care and to defray living costs.
Life with Gigi is almost perfect, even if the city’s constant fog is a bit of a downer. The haze shrouds everything, and Ali realizes it’s connected with Copycats when she unexpectedly develops powers of her own. Along with learning to control her new abilities, Ali’s scared that she won’t make any friends at her new school and is confused about Digger and Gigi’s involvement in a mysterious family feud. Ali’s plan is to connect with her cousin Alfie at school so they can hash out the puzzling familial drama.
At 432 pages, the novel runs slightly long. There is a subplot of a damaged friendship between two of Ali’s friends that does not really go anywhere. There are also short lists of “Ali’s rules” appearing as sidebars every few pages, which detract from the narrative. The novel is at its best when it focuses on the burgeoning friendships between Ali, Alfie, and their classmates. McLeod MacKnight’s wit comes through in scenes where the kids interact, such as a class project that takes the form of an educational game show, Classification Jeopardy, complete with clever category names like “Cell-O: Is it Me You’re Thinking Of?” and “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.” The Copycat would have benefitted from more scenes focused on the friend group and less with Digger and Gigi.