The internet seems to have collectively decided that young readers exhibit a standard development process in their teenage years. It’s often been stated as fact that around the age of twelve or thirteen, boys start to drift away from children’s books, usually ignoring YA (which is a ‘girl’s genre’, apparently) and going straight for adult science fiction and fantasy. Many, many professionally-published SF authors have written about how they were inspired to start writing by the works of people like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who they usually encountered in their early teens. Fantasy authors likewise usually talk about their first taste of Tolkien the same way some people discuss an early religious experience – as a life-altering, even life-defining event.
I didn’t exactly follow that progression. I had always liked the idea of science fiction, even at a very young age, but a lot of the SF authors I tried ended up boring me to tears. I suffered through half of Greg Bear’s Eon (a certified ‘Masterwork’!) before giving up. I ploughed through the entirety of The Lord of the Rings because everyone kept saying I should, a decision I regret to this day. In desperation, I tried some of the so-called ‘juveniles’ from the likes of Ray Bradbury, an experience which left me with the distinct impression that I was being talked down to by a particularly condescending adult.
The one example that did manage to catch my interest – that managed to ignite my imagination, even – was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs books. This isn’t too much of a surprise when you consider that I absolutely devoured the Goosebeumps books before outgrowing them. (Coincidentally enough, this happened around the same time their quality took a sharp nosedive.) Like Goosebumps, the Animorphs books were short – 150 to 200 pages, usually – and written in fairly simple language. I could get through several of them in a day, which I often did given how cheap they were. Unlike Goosebumps, though, they never felt like an explicitly ‘for-children’ version of their genre; all right, they may not have been anything approaching hard science fiction, but they were well thought-out and could be incredibly violent and dark at times.
What really captured my interest, though, were the characters. K.A. Applegate made the unusual decision to have each book be narrated in first person by a different member of the core cast, of whom they were six (initially just five, but more on that in later posts). I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but even at the age of thirteen I could tell that Greg Bear’s characters had as much to do with real people as looking at a photo of the Grand Canyon has to do with jumping head-first into the real thing – from the very beginning, I craved characterisation. Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, Tobias and Ax (again, much more on them later) always felt like real people to me. They were more than just a convenient way for an author to explore a particularly interesting SF concept. Re-reading the books now, I’m amazed at how well they’ve stood the test of time – today’s YA authors could learn as awful lot from the way Applegate handles their individual character arcs.
So, that’s my own history with the series. They were probably among the first books that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, and I have very fond memories of dashing into random bookstores as I walked past them to see whether a new volume was out. In the interest of literary history and also fun, I’ll be going through the series book-by-book and recapping each one, as well as providing my thoughts on the series as I go. If you’ve ever read any of Tor.com’s popular re-read posts, imagine something like that but a lot less professional.
Now for a bit of general background information:
The Animorphs series comprises of a whopping 54 ‘ordinary’ books, 4 extra-long ‘Megamorphs’ volumes and 4 ‘Chronicles’ books that expanded on the series’ increasingly-complex (some would say complicated) universe. There was also a truly godawful TV series, which I’ll write about if I can get my hands on it in a way that doesn’t involve importing second-hand VHS tapes from Amazon. I did watch the first volume of the series as a kid, but some sort of psychological defence mechanism kicked in around the time I was subjected to an incredibly fake-looking Ax and I have almost no recollection of any of it.
Apparently there was an Animorphs videogame for the original Playstation. It almost certainly sucks, so I’ll be ignoring it. I’ll also be ignoring it on account of the fact that it’s selling for a ridiculous $60 online. (And I’ve just stumbled across a Game Boy Colour game as well. I don’t even want to think what that must be like.)
Although K.A. Applegate is credited with authorship of every book, she didn’t write all of them. Many of the later volumes were ghostwritten from her outlines, with varying results. Her husband, a successful author in his own right, was also involved to some degree (nobody seems to agree how much influence he had, though).
I never realised this at the time, but the books seemed to have been incredibly popular. I blame my ignorance on the fact that I live in Ireland, where they were popular but not ‘ads on major TV channels’ popular.
The overarching plot revolves around a huge, covert alien invasion of Earth by a species called the Yeerks. They’re basically sentient slugs, with the ability to control host bodies by wrapping themselves around the host’s brain. In a rather horrifying little twist, the host remains fully conscious while being controlled – sort of like having Locked-In Syndrome, except your body keeps moving around outside your control. The vast majority of people are completely unaware that this is going on.
The five initial main characters get clued in to the invasion by a dying Andalite, which is a species engaged in a galaxy-spanning war with the Yeerks. Shortly before being eaten by a Yeerk leader, he gives our intrepid heroes the ability to temporarily change into other species by absorbing their DNA. (This is another neat little twist: in order to ‘acquire’ DNA, the characters had to physically touch a member of the species they wanted to change into. As you can imagine, this made things interesting when they needed the DNA of a dolphin. Or a tiger.) Over time, each character ended up with a fairly large collection of ‘morphs’, some of which were unique to them.
While in morph, the characters can communicate telepathically with each other. Looking at it now, I can recognise this for the convenient plot device that it is. As a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
The Yeerks and Andalites aren’t the only alien species in the series. There are a lot of secondary ones, some inventive and in keeping with the overall tone of the series, and some…uh, not.
As I indicated above, the series could be dark. Shockingly dark, in places. There’s an awful lot of violence, most of it of the ‘bear ripping a humanoid alien’s arm off’ variety, and the characters show very believable signs of stress and trauma from everything they’ve been through. Again, I remember thinking this was awesome as a kid.
Each book had a standalone plot, usually about the Animorphs trying to make a dent in the Yeerk’s invasion plan and/or reacting to some new threat, but the series as a whole was meant to be read in sequence. So you can technically jump in at book 20 if you want, but you’ll miss out on a lot.
As far as I can tell, the original books are out of print. You can find them easily enough online, though, usually for just a few dollars each, and Scholastic is now re-releasing the first few volumes with new covers. Feel free to get the books yourself and read along with my posts! I’ll be covering one book a week, so I should be finished in…just over a year. Jesus.
Anyway, come back next week for my re-read of Animorphs #1: The Invasion!