A few weeks ago, I somehow stumbled on to Morph Club: An Animorphs Podcast, somewhere in the great twitterverse, and started rereading The Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate so I could listen along. The Animorphs, a young adult series by K. A. Applegate about a group of teens who fight an alien invasion by transforming in to animals, was
probably absolutely my favorite book series as a kid, and going back through them again has been magical. Being a series intended for Young Adults, it’s easy to qualify any commentary about them with “for kids books”, but they are enormously consumable books with engaging characters and surprisingly dark themes, regardless of the age of the reader.
So far, I’m up to book
eight nine ten eleven (you guys, these books are seriously fast reads) in the series, and while it’s taken a few weeks to get this far (between work, life, other reading, video games, and the like), each book only takes a few hours to read through. I’m not sure if I processed this fully when the series ran, but these books came out more or less monthly between 1996 and 2001, and each one is only about 150 pages. However, it’s not just the short length that makes these so consumable, they also have (for the most part) excellent pacing. Short chapters are constantly punctuated with cliffhanger reveals that keep you moving from one to the next, and the basic layout of each story (unrelated intro, mission briefing, find a new morph, adjust to the horror and/or awesomeness of the animal’s instincts, complete the mission with a big action scene) is familiar and formulaic in the best kind of way. Each book actually feels more or less like a tabletop RPG session (makes note to google “Animorphs + Table top”). This quick format kept me totally hooked through each book and in to the next as a kid, and is doing the same as an adult!
On top of the pacing, the books also benefit from a super engaging cast of characters that I’m falling for all over again. Jake, Marco, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias and (spoilers) Ax each fall more or less into archetypal roles that feel pretty two-dimensional at first, but the shifting narrative helps to develop each character into so much more. Not only do you get to see how the characters think about themselves, but you get to see how they are seen by each of their companions. On the surface, Marco is just a sarcastic goof, and that’s more or less what Tobias and Ax seem his as, but Jake knows how damaged he and his father are from the loss of his mother, while Rachel recognizes that his sense of humor keeps the group from all out panicking, and Cassie recognizes that his caution is crucial to balance out Rachel’s all-in attitude. Each individual story really only develops the main character and one or two others, but the constant narrative flux results in a group of characters that is so fully realized that there is emotional resonance in every trial they face.
What’s really the most bonkers thing to me in coming back to this series, though, is the darkness throughout them. Sure, I remembered that Tobias got trapped in bird morph in the first book, but there are other terrifying ideas, both major and minor, that I completely forgot. Some of that comes from the horrific idea of the characters wondering if (and sometimes find out that) their loved ones have been taken over by mind controlling slugs, but it also comes in disturbing details of both the morphing process itself and of the carnage both suffered and caused by the Animorphs. Remember how this book is for and about middle schoolers? Wikipedia says, “horror, war, dehumanization, sanity, morality, innocence, leadership, freedom, and growing up are the core themes of the series.” That’s messed up, yo.
I know that my view of these books is influenced by nostalgia, but I’m really loving revisiting this series. If you never read them before, give ’em a shot, and if you have read them, try picking one up again. They honestly feel too dark for their target audience, but as an adult, you could get through the first five in a week, and that’s plenty of time to fall for the characters and come across a few really disturbing moments. Also, be sure to check out the excellent Morph Club podcast, along with Fanimorphs: The Dork Bajir Chronicles and The Hindishgt: The Power of Heart.
Yeah… I’m listening to three different Animorphs podcasts now.