I have been wanting to write these words in this newsletter for well over a year now, so, dear reader, it gives me great pleasure to announce: Let’s talk about Animorphs.
Chances are, if you’re at all familiar with Animorphs, it is because of those primordial-Photoshop covers that portray teenagers slowly turning into an animal, because come on, that shit is super easy to meme but is also uncanny and discomforting enough to be instantly memorable. However, if you were in grade school anytime between like, 1996 and 2006, you definitely had Animorphs books in your library, and if you read them, then you would know that it is still, to this day, one of the darkest and most complex— both in terms of plot as well as in terms of morality and psychology— series ever made available to children. Hell, I think it still is home to some truly ghastly and traumatic moments, and bursting at the seams with both sci-fi creativity and immense thematic depth and richness.
On the surface, the plot of Animorphs (as reiterated at the beginning of each book by whichever protagonist takes the reins) is simple. Five humans, and later an alien, discover that their planet is under siege by a species of slugs called Yeerks, who slide into people’s brains and take control of them. A member of another alien race, the Andalites, crash-lands on the planet and gives them the power to morph into any animal they touch— with the caveat that if they stay in morph for longer than two hours, they will be trapped forever. The morphing becomes their main method of defending the planet, and since, by the Yeerks’ very nature, they can’t tell anyone, they spend the rest of the series waging a guerrilla war for the survival of their homeworld. However, this doesn’t even begin to acknowledge either the insanity of the plots nor the richness of the storytelling.
Animorphs is essentially a treatise on PTSD, about the horrors of war and the effect it has on the child soldiers who are unwillingly thrust into it (entirely due to the machinations of impossibly powerful and omniscient beings, of whom they are essentially pawns being used to fight a proxy war). It is kind of an epic sci-fi coming of age tale (the main human characters begin the series at the age of thirteen and the war ends when they are sixteen), but in the process it asks veiled questions: about existentialism; about military culture, American exceptionalism, and imperialism (through the device of the Andalites, an alien race that are at first presented as “the good guys of the universe” and whose pedestal slowly breaks and crumbles throughout the series); about situations in which there is no “correct” moral or ethical decision to make, and realizing that you will never be immune to the fallout and ramifications resulting from said decisions.
And, if you’ve never read Animorphs, I am sure this seems impossibly dense and convoluted for a series of kid’s books to ever deal with properly. Now, I am not the best in the world at summarizing the overall plot of these books— for a somewhat accessible intro, and some excellent analysis of some of the biggest and weirdest events throughout the series, I recommend the two videos Lord Ravenscraft did about them here and here. (Seriously— this person did an absolutely phenomenal job.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking— Ellie, sometimes you go down the most bizarre rabbit holes when it comes to the media you consumed growing up. How am I supposed to tell if this isn’t just another of your wild-eyed, brief obsessions? Worse, how do I know this isn’t just your version of Harry Potter (ie, YA novels that adults get stuck on reading at the expense of other meaningful literature, particularly adult literature, and upon which they project everything about politics, history, and everyday life to an embarrassing extent)? And I guess the truth is that— you don’t know that. You’re just going to have to trust me. And you can experience Animorphs for little-to-no cost to you— although I encourage you to support the creators by picking up the first graphic novel adaptation (!), the original run of books has been out of print for some time, and as a result there has been a massive fan effort to make sure all the books (and there are a lot— 54 main series entries, 4 extra-length Megamorphs installments, 4 Chronicles books that expand upon the lore and mythology, and two choose-your-own-adventure books) are easily accessible and available to you. For my purposes, I can’t tell you exactly where to find them, but it is absolutely not difficult, and if Google fails you, Soulseek is always there.
But since that’s such a huge time commitment, let me explain why you should commit to it in the first place. No one is denying that the original Animorphs books are something of a time capsule of the mid-late 90s; in fact, that is kind of their appeal. Animorphs began in a time when The X-Files was one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in America (a fact not lost on authors Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant; at least once, two of the protagonists use Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as aliases), as well as a time where high-quality genre fiction for the younger subset was at a peak in quantity. Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark, Fear Street, Eerie Indiana, and a plethora more informed the atmosphere that Animorphs came into. So even though the backbone of the series was still firmly constructed on the baseboards of tried-and-true staples like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, it was all enhanced by a postmodern melange of influences, and the series was published on a monthly basis in a way that felt more similar to pulpy installments in comics or TV shows, making the epic scale of the story feel both much larger in scope and much more accessible.
But when I say it’s a time capsule of the 90s, I really mean it; references to Doom, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nine Inch Nails, Spawn, and countless more ephemera abound, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a huge part of the charm in revisiting it. However, if you dig deeper than that— and if you can ease your way into the writing style, which is certainly not overtly childish, but is clearly meant to be digested by middle-grade readers— the overwhelming depth and complexity of the world, the narrative, the themes, and especially the characters (my goodness, the characters) becomes rapidly apparent.
When I was growing up, all my friends who read Animorphs had their character that they identified the most with, and on the surface it’s easy to just say that each of the six main characters— leader Jake, clown Marco, Valley Girl warrior Rachel, empath Cassie, lonely Tobias (a human trapped in a bird’s body), and alternately cold and loopy alien Ax— fit snugly into classic Saturday morning cartoon character archetypes. But the older I get, the more I find myself identifying with elements of everybody, and since the narrators of the books go in cycles (Jake narrates the first book, then Rachel, then either Tobias or Ax, then Cassie, then Marco, and then the cycle repeats), this makes experiencing the series as a whole again much easier and more satisfying than when I was just reading for the arcs of my favorites.
Again, Lord Ravenscraft goes into further detail and better analysis than I could here, but each character plays an extremely vital role in making the series what it is. When I was younger, Cassie’s constant moral grandstanding and hypocrisy seemed like an utter annoyance; now I understand that without her around, it would have been all too easy for the characters, and consequently the series, to lose its humanity. Jake seemed like a generic leader type— all-American brown-haired white boy, with square shoulders and a taciturn demeanor. Now I can recognize that the weight of the tactical decisions and sacrifices Jake makes— the constant tough calls and the fact that everyone looks at him to shoulder the emotional burden of those decisions— leaves clear scars in his psyche that reverberate and expand until he becomes someone capable of ordering a fleet of disabled children into battle without blinking (that’s a particularly harrowing late-series development!).
The characters I always liked also, in retrospect, become even deeper and, even at their least relatable, feel completely real. Rachel starts out as the most gung-ho in the battle against the Yeerks, and while her descent into addiction to violence is treated with the gravity it deserves, the final impact of her fraying sanity (as well as the fact that everyone else in the group instinctively looks to her when it’s time to “do the dirty work”) is heartbreaking. Marco’s comic one-liners and immense strategic skills (he is the most shrewd and calculating of the Animorphs, and as such is the best at both constructing plans and poking holes in others to make them better) mask layers of deep trauma in quite a realistic fashion. Tobias’s struggles with purpose, with humanity, with not feeling like he’s in the right body resonate even more with anyone who’s struggled with their gender or sexuality. And even Ax— a character whose complete bewilderment at Earth and human life is a running joke throughout the series— experiences a complete disillusionment with his home planet’s government, and learns to ignore the speciesist chauvinism instilled in him by Andalite culture in favor of aligning with people based on ideology and common goals.
But all that character development would be for naught if the plot and world itself weren’t immensely compelling. There’s definitely a few elements of teen soap relationship drama— the slow-building romance between Jake and Cassie and the doomed-from-day-one romance between Rachel and Tobias are the biggest ones— but they ultimately take a backseat to the ongoing war effort. If you’re interested in extremely fleshed-out sci-fi worlds, then this is the series for you. Alien species introduced throughout the series are given mountains of backstory that tie into the themes explored in the main books, and that’s not to mention all of the less-important Monster of the Week-esque species and worlds that are described in loving detail no matter how little they matter to the overall plot (and to be fair, with a series this long and episodic, there’s bound to be stuff that isn’t as important to the overarching story).
Now, all this being said, the best way to get into the series is to just start at the beginning and read everything in publication order (it’s not chronological, but the plot revelations that happen in some of the side books give a lot of weight to the proceedings in subsequent books, so in my opinion, it’s best to read them in the order initially intended rather than starting at the earliest point timeline-wise). The sheer amount of books might make this seem overwhelming at first, but they are honestly really breezy reads— I can knock out a standard entry in anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, while the extra-length books take around two or three hours at the most.
But even though they go by at a clip and the writing isn’t outwardly sophisticated, these aren’t necessarily easy reads. The process of morphing is described in acute detail, with a huge emphasis on Cronenberg-esque body horror, and that sets in as early as a third of the way into the first book. By the third book, the weight of the war and its consequences are already taking a noticeable toll on the characters, and things just get more intense as the series go on— characters get temporarily taken over by the Yeerks, characters watch themselves and their friends die on multiple occasions (sometimes for real, other times through time travel fuckery, but the effect is always devastating), gruesome deaths and gory dismemberments occur by the chapter, characters get taken hostage and tortured to the point of soiling themselves, and by the end of the series, atrocities are being committed left and right. I am not exaggerating in the least bit when I say there are characters who are acknowledged as war criminals in the final book. Nothing in Animorphs is taken for granted, and although in the middle of the series (when ghostwriters, working from outlines provided by Applegate and Grant, temporarily took over the day-to-day operations) there is a bit of a stall in terms of forward plot momentum, the status quo is never a given, and the last six or so books feature extreme changes to the world and the characters’ lives that are fundamentally irreversible.
Animorphs was truly something special. The most important thing that a series ostensibly aimed at children can do is avoid talking down to them at all costs— and Animorphs not only succeeded in that regard, but the conversations it started become all the more potent the older one gets. The eventual conclusion of the series, The Beginning, is famous for being an unremitting downer as well as for ending the story on a decidedly uncertain, deliberately dissatisfactory note. I was one of those who was irked by it on first read, but upon revisiting, the ultimate message seems extremely important. Animorphs was always a war story, and wars are not easy, they are not neat and clean, and they certainly do not have happy endings. The fact that the conclusion of the series was published in May of 2001 makes it even more potent in retrospect. I commend Applegate and Grant for resisting any urges to make the ending upbeat or even necessarily palatable, and the open letter Applegate penned for fans who were upset about the ending is worth reading even to this day, but the final two paragraphs are the ones that always stood out the most to me:
So, you don't like the way our little fictional war came out? …You don't like that one war simply led to another? Fine. Pretty soon you'll all be of voting age, and of draft age. So when someone proposes a war, remember that even the most necessary wars, even the rare wars where the lines of good and evil are clear and clean, end with a lot of people dead, a lot of people crippled, and a lot of orphans, widows and grieving parents.
If you're mad at me because that's what you have to take away from Animorphs, too bad. I couldn't have written it any other way and remained true to the respect I have always felt for Animorphs readers.
(The full letter is here, but it contains some extremely brutal spoilers, so I wouldn’t advise reading it unless you’re either A. okay with that or B. have already finished the series.)
For these reasons, it’s fairly obvious why anyone would be worried about the film adaptation that was announced last year. The story of Animorphs is a sprawling, complex tragedy, and the scope of a single two-hour film could never truly convey what it was all about, let alone include the sheer variety of experiments that Applegate, Grant, and co. tried out over the course of the series. What we can hope for is that the film will be correctly marketed and executed well enough that a longer, more comprehensive series can ensue. Or, at the very least, that the movie will engender enough interest that all the people who should have been reading it and never shutting up about it all along finally get with the program.
I am curious as to what a modern interpretation of Animorphs would even look like; while people such as Poparena have ruminated on how different the series feels today, there is a large amount of it that feels strangely current. Like I mentioned before, it grew out of the same subversive, conspiratorial spirit of The X-Files, and while that particular subculture may have been co-opted by the right-wing establishment as the years have gone on, that paranoid mistrust of the federal government, authority figures, and imperialism— and especially coming to terms with the arrogance and moral corruption of your own government and military— is a theme that is surely evergreen. And hell, it sure is much more cutting, more relatable, and more gutsy and honest than much of the YA that succeeded it.
Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, I’ve either sparked enough interest in you to check the series out for yourself, or you’re a fellow long-time fan. Either way, here’s a brief look at some of my personal favorite individual stories told throughout the series’ run.
#1: The Invasion
The first book in the series is still an exceptional introduction to the world and characters. There are a couple continuity errors and early confusion about how morphing works that would get ironed out as time went on, but the foundations are firmly established, we feel appropriately powerless against the sheer scope of the Yeerk invasion, and there are actual stakes and a healthy helping of real loss right from the get go (the brutal death of Elfangor and the gut-punch of Tobias getting trapped in morph). And all these years later, after knowing how everything eventually turns out, it’s endlessly fascinating to go back to the start and see how much the characters have changed, and what, if anything, about them remained the same throughout the duration of the war. (In my personal estimation, while all the characters experienced dramatic personality shifts, Jake and Rachel’s are the most extreme, and Marco is the person who ended up staying the most stable.) Happy 25th.
#5: The Predator
Marco is and always has been my favorite member of the Animorphs, and he is also the last of the original cast of characters to get his own narration, meaning he’s the character we’ve gotten the least interiority and motivation for. To this point, he’s not just been the comic relief, but the character most reluctant to join the war effort, always telling the others “We’re kids, we shouldn’t have to do this” (which is, you know, correct), and in this book, we get a deeper sense of who he is, just what trauma he is using humor and cynicism to mask and cope with, and why he is so reluctant. His mother died many years ago, causing his father to fall into a deep depression, and consequently, the two struggle with poverty while Marco is in the unenviable position of having to be an emotional caretaker. He’s completely in his rights to say that if he dies, he doesn’t think his dad would be able to handle it. Needless to say, this book (and in retrospect, I am surprised this plot thread was revealed so early) gives Marco a reason to stay in the war. I most recently reread this one last year, and even at the ripe old age of 23, the final chapter made me cry. Fuck off.
#6: The Capture
This book is phenomenal. The first half is a pretty formulaic (even by this point early in the series) Animorphs mission, but things get really, really screwy in the second half after Jake gets a Yeerk stuck in his head. On the one hand, the sheer existential horror of not being in control of your own body— in fact, the feeling of being inside yourself while something else pretends to be you— is so visceral and unnerving that it would be impossible for this book not to be effective. But on the other, it’s the way that the rest of the Animorphs have already been sharpened and hardened enough to carefully and strategically take care of the problem that helps to give this one a mildly triumphant edge. The climax and final scene are both really heavy in different ways— you have the (as of yet) unknowable Lovecraftian horror of the images that flash through Jake’s mind as the Yeerk in his head finally, very painfully, dies of starvation (the very first hint of a growing pathos for certain Yeerks that would be expanded upon in later volumes), and you also have the surprisingly sweet conclusion where Jake half-morphs into a wolf to disguise his voice and calls his Yeerk-infested brother to give him an anonymous message to never give up. One of the best books of the series’ early run, before things start to get ludicrously dark.
#16: The Warning
I’m skipping a bunch of great and important storylines (the introduction of the Ellimist in The Stranger, Ax’s delightfully quirky first narration in The Alien, the introduction of the Pemalites and Erek King in personal favorite The Android, the time travel fuckery in The Forgotten, Tobias getting his morphing abilities back in The Change), and I’m also surprised to see how many Jake books I’m including in this list, but hey, I only have so much time, and this one is one of those episodic installments that is just brilliant and defines so much of the colorful but darkly clever energy the series had at its peak. This is the “aren’t chat rooms weird?” book in the series— very 1998— but you know what? They were weird. And further, not too dissimilar from Twitch streams. Anyway, this books is delightful and crazy and includes a rhinoceros rampage, which is always welcome, but it’s the Monster of the Week reveal that always blows me away. There’s a needlessly convoluted (in a fun way) investigation that culminates in the revelation that the estranged sibling of Visser Three (the leader of the Yeerk invasion, the primary antagonist, menacing motherfucker, and the only Yeerk to ever take control of an Andalite) is in control of a tech billionaire. He also impersonates people in chat rooms and, in lieu of having access to Kandrona rays (imitations of the sun on the Yeerks’ homeworld, for which they must exit their hosts every three days in order to feed), lures human-Controllers out to his facility, murders them by cracking their heads open, and eats the Yeerk inside. It’s fucked up.
#19: The Departure
I used to be a Cassie hater, but I’ve grown. I’ve changed. And I’ve fallen in love with this book. It’s always the one to point to whenever anyone complains about Cassie or calls her hypocritical. Yes, she is hypocritical, and moralistic and empathetic to a fault. This is because she is an idealist, which gives her no other choice than to be a hypocrite. I think a huge part of the reason Cassie grated on me in my earlier years is that, in many ways, she is the exact polar opposite of Marco (when I think of his character, I always think of the beautiful and stellar “bright clear line” quote, which overwhelmingly spits in the face of all of Cassie’s philosophies). But it’s in this book where the true value of her idealism can be found. A huge chunk of the book combines expository information about the Yeerk world and mindset with an almost Socratic debate between a Yeerk and Cassie, and the conclusion they both come to is, though one of the most smallest victories in the series from a “dealing damage to the enemy” perspective, one of the most significant in terms of potential. The full ramifications of Cassie’s decision start to become more clear in the de facto sequel to this book, #29: The Sickness, which is one of the most tense and well-written of all of the ghostwritten entries, and helps to solidify The Departure’s place as perhaps the most philosophically potent entry at this point in the series’ run.
The David Trilogy (#20: The Discovery, #21: The Threat, #22: The Solution)
I’m absolutely cheating by combining these three books into one entry, but come on, it’s a requirement at this point to discuss these books whenever Animorphs comes up. Arriving a little bit before the halfway mark of the series, this is a turning point in every sense of the word. These books explore the time-honored idea of welcoming a new member onto the team and having it go horribly wrong— only here, because it’s the Animorphs, things go catastrophically wrong, and they’re forced to make extremely difficult moral decisions as a result. What happens when they’re forced to recruit a new kid, David, into the fold, and he turns out to be a violent, unstable traitor? Lots of horrible shit, including several attempted murders. While the first two books are certainly well-written and tense, it’s The Solution, which is written from Rachel’s perspective, that cements The David Trilogy as one of the darkest, most mature entries in the series. When Jake decides David has become too much of a liability, and the team needs to kill him, he asks for Rachel, and Rachel spends much of the book grappling with both that fact— her teammates’ perception of her— and the parts of herself that have caused that perception to emerge. Of course, Rachel can’t be the only one morally compromised, as Cassie’s capacity for manipulation comes to the forefront as well (something that doesn’t get discussed enough when Animorphs comes up is the complexity and realism of their friendships and group dynamics). The conclusion is one of the bleakest in the series’ history, and leaves everyone involved with a profoundly empty feeling. It’s brilliant.
The Hork-Bajir Chronicles
While all the Chronicles books are among the best-written books in the series and serve as excellent vehicles for fleshing out worlds and characters that otherwise would have been left unexplored (though there’s still plenty of mystery to go around), I think it’s near-universally agreed upon that The Hork-Bajir Chronicles is the best of the lot. It’s an extremely difficult plot to summarize, relying as it does on a great degree of familiarity with the universe and lore of the Animorphs, but suffice to say this book explores heavy themes of interventionism, colonialism, existentialism, (more) war crimes, and genocide, and through all of it, finds time to powerfully render a darkly tragic romance. It’s a fan favorite for a reason.
Megamorphs #4: Back to Before
This is the last of the side novels to be released before the epic ten-book arc that closed out the series, and as such, you might expect it to be somewhat of a breather from the increasing claustrophobia and escalating aggression of the main series. Not so; in fact, this may just be the bleakest book on this list (and I promise I’m not doing this just to prove how dark & edgy this series was; I just find many of the bleak ones to be well-written and poignant). After a particularly stressful and traumatic battle, Jake succumbs to a moment of weakness and makes a deal with an inter-dimensional trickster-being known as the Drode, reversing the wheels of time and making it so that the Animorphs never came across Elfangor in the first place— never learned about the Yeerk, never got their powers, and certainly never forging the bonds that have kept them alive all this time. What follows is the most depressing series of chapters in the history of the series, as we watch a particularly twisted (and uncomfortably believable) alternate timeline pan out and characters start meeting horrid fates left and right. The conclusion warps everything back to the “status quo,” but the takeaway from this book— that these child soldiers must endure unending, nauseating trauma against odds that any rational person would consider unwinnable, and the alternative is even worse— is impossibly depressing. It’s probably my single favorite late-series entry.
There’s tons of excellent books and storylines I didn’t have the time or space to mention, but the bottom line is that I’m begging you to read this books, and demand that Scholastic and Picturestart be held to account if they fuck the upcoming adaptation up. Animorphs isn’t just an immensely important portion of my childhood and development— it’s a series of genuine literary value, that still holds up today and deserves to be thought of in the great tradition of sci-fi-and-horror-as-social-commentary. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the authors are great people. Please.
The thing you should know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.
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