Confession time: I have in my possession all 54 books of the ANIMORPHS series by K.A. Applegate, in addition to ancillary materials including THE ANDALITE CHRONICLES, two Choose Your Own Adventure-style books, and a handful of super-sized MEGAMORPHS. In fact, I think I have everything ever published except THE HORK-BAJIR CHRONICLES, which I have a vague memory of borrowing from a friend and therefore never purchased. To say I was a fan of Animorphs growing up is something of an understatement. In fact, there were a number of years in my life where any trip to a book store ALWAYS began with me dashing back to the children’s section to see if the next book had been released yet. All else was secondary. These were the books I read over and over from about 3rd to 7th grade, and were probably more foundational to my life than Harry Potter.
Wait, what the heck is ANIMORPHS?
Unless you were a kid (or had a kid) in a very specific window of the late 90s, the above paragraph is full of lot of words that look like I smashed the keyboard, and make no sense to you whatsoever. Allow me to introduce you to the wonderful, weird, harrowing world of ANIMORPHS. Somewhere in the US, five kids stumble upon a crashed alien ship. Inside is a dying alien prince, who warns the kids that an alien race is secretly invading Earth, and his people are unable to help. His last act is to gift the children with the power to “morph” (shapeshift) into any creature they touch. The kids then spend 54 books waging war against these alien creatures who, by the way, are slugs that crawl into a person’s brain and control them Body Snatchers style. That means your teacher, your coach, your neighbor, your brother, any one of them could be controlled by an alien. And they won’t stop until the whole human race is enslaved.
I recently reread the first dozen or so books in the ANIMORPHS series, and while the references are dated, the underlying material holds up surprisingly well. This was probably the first series, in books, TV, or in film, that impressed upon me the importance of stakes in storytelling, of having consequences. These books were probably responsible for my instance as a child of watching TV episodes in order, even in an era when most shows were built in a way that episode order didn’t matter. I was chasing that feeling of episodes long-form storytelling, that feeling that every incident mattered and affected things to come. Yes, each book was a contained 150 page story where a problem was largely solved within those 150 pages. But ANIMORPHS made clear from book one that this was not a tale of cut-and-dry happily ever after.
Mild Spoilers Ahead!
You see, the catch with morphing is that if you stay in a form for more than two hours, you are stuck in that form FOREVER. And that happens to one of the kids in the first book. In an instant, the kid’s human life was over. They retained their human consciousness, could communicate telepathically, and still fought alongside the others, but now they had to live in the woods and could never go home. They couldn’t go to school or play video games or learn to drive a car. They had to learn to hunt and to not be hunted. This remained an ongoing struggle for the character throughout the entire series (a few loopholes not withstanding).
And this was only the first of many long-term ramifications. These kids develop PTSD from the battles they fought. One kid lives alongside a sibling they know is controlled by an enemy alien. Another is dealing with a family going through divorce; another has a depressed father who hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death. Some characters don’t survive the series. Did I mention that these were shelved in the children’s section?
And you enjoyed these books?
You better believe it. Because trauma aside, at the end of the day, ANIMORPHS was an empowerment series. These were kids just like me, and it was up to them to save the world. If you were an Animorph, you could fly, you could swim to the bottom of the ocean, you could become a bear and rip someone apart. I idolized Rachel, the kick-ass girl in the group who was eager to leap into battle before anyone could stop her. Aside from Xena and Tamora Pierce, there were very few pieces of media that were giving me a powerful female character to look up to. That has thankfully changed for the better in recent years, but at the time, my favorite shows were largely all-boy squads. And it speaks volumes that little grade-school me was shaken to my core when I realized that ANIMORPHS was written not by a man, as I assumed (cause wasn’t everything?). My favorite, action-packed, dark sci-fi adventure was written by a WOMAN, and that in and of itself was an empowerment.
Lastly, I’ve come to realize that ANIMORPHS was a series that helped introduce me to quintessential sci-fi tropes and archetypes. There were as many classic sci-fi shenanigans scattered through these books as any STAR TREK series. You had androids that looked human, time travel, rebellions, laser guns, omniscient beings that showed up to mess with the Animorphs for funsies, spaceships, genetic manipulation, alternate realities, miniaturization and more. I think there was even a evil twin plot line at one point, after a severed limb from a starfish morph transformed into a second version of Rachel. Guys, ANIMORPHS went to some WEIRD places in the course of 54 books. Case in point: the good aliens were blue, centaur-like creatures with no mouths, four eyes, six fingers, a scorpion tail, and the ability to eat by absorbing nutrients through their hooves.
These days, it’s increasingly difficult to find copies of ANIMORPHS – aside from a brief reprinting of the first handful of books, they’ve long been consigned to eBay. But for one, brief, shining moment, ANIMORPHS was the highlight of many a kids’ day, one of the shining jewels of Scholastic Book Fairs. So let us take this moment to honor the warriors, the fallen, the heroes, those that were the ANIMORPHS. Here’s to Rachel, Jake, Cassie, Tobias, Marco, and (eventually) Ax, the six who stood against the darkness and provided me with hundreds of hours of entertainment.