Before the Harry Potter series came to be the face of children’s fiction, there were hundreds of smaller monthly paperbacks that populated libraries, bookstores, and even grocery aisles in the ‘90s.
There were the detectives I wanted to be in Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, The Boxcar Children, and The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley; the cool girls I wanted to befriend in Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club; and the occasional scary tales I’d read when I was feeling brave enough in Goosebumps. But none of them stayed with me as long and as profoundly as The Animorphs continues to today.
I know, I know. For many people, The Animorphs is that weird series with the wacky covers of kids turning into animals. These days, you’d more easily consider it as a meme or a pretty rad group Halloween costume than, say, a great work of literature. And I get it. Very few children’s books from the time are as instantly recognizable, and indeed, as meme-able.
But as someone who grew up with those books, I find that they remind me of a time I could still finish a book or two in one sitting, and of the now-closed second-hand bookstore three blocks from my childhood home, in which I grabbed every grubby copy of The Animorphs I could find.
They remind me of a time when a group of kids with the power to morph into any animal they could touch were fighting a secret war on earth, and I rooted for them. Theirs was a world I spent so much of my childhood in, and looking back now, a world that taught me so much about war, imperialism, and morality.
That sounds like a lot to glean from books that look the way they do. But hear me out.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its So-Bad-It’s-Good Cover
Comprising 54 books (plus spin-offs), the Animorphs series began 25 years ago and finished in 2001. Though they were credited to K.A. Applegate, they were the work of spouses Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, along with a team of ghostwriters.
In the books, five teenagers — Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Marco, and Tobias — stumble upon a dying alien, who gives them the “technology” to morph into animals for two hours at a time. But this power doesn’t come for free. They’re asked to stop a secret, ongoing invasion being carried out by Yeerks, an alien race of slugs that crawl into your ear, flatten themselves over your brain, access your thoughts and memories, and take control of your body.
As readers, we see these kids, who are later on joined by Ax, the younger brother of the alien who gave them their powers, slowly lose interest in school and their hobbies as the war rages on and more and more of their community fall under Yeerk control. The fate of the world was on their shoulders.
The covers, which always featured one of the protagonists morphing into an animal by stages, translated to the bottom corners of the inside pages, which worked like a flip-book.
Cassie turns into a dolphin in book 4; Marco morphs into a spider in book 10; Jake turns into his own dog, Homer, in book 21. The graphics are certainly a product of their time, but even then they had a wacky sort of quality that no adult would take seriously. The end effect is that they effectively hid the pretty traumatic things that happen to their young protagonists.
And Boy, Is There Trauma
Across the books, the teens get shot at, dismembered, eaten alive — you name it, they’ve had to go through it. Though the ability to morph helps restore their bodies, they get nightmares and increasingly grow distraught over the constant killing and the guilt over the hard choices they have to make.
Early on, Animorphs leader Jake gets infested by a Yeerk and readers are treated to the first-person horror of losing control of your body — and not having anyone notice. The kids eventually figure it out and starve the Yeerk out of Jake’s head, which isn’t a very pleasant experience either.
Marco, the joker of the group, also finds out that his dead mom isn’t actually dead, but is controlled by a Yeerk — and not just any Yeerk. His mom was controlled by one of their leaders. At one point, he decides to kill her. He doesn’t actually succeed, but you get to read his thought process on the way there.
Once, Tobias is captured and tortured with a machine that induces anguish and happiness in alternating doses. It nearly kills him, and though he survives, he never truly heals from it.
In book 39, Cassie sees an ant accidentally gain the power to morph into her. The weird ant-human starts screaming mid-morph, likely overwhelmed at the experience of individual consciousness after being part of a colony all its life, and Cassie ends up killing it.
And finally, there’s Rachel, who finds to her horror that she actually enjoys all the violence. She struggles with her aggression all throughout the series, even though Marco jokingly calls her Xena, Warrior Princess, and Jake begins to exploit her tendencies for the war effort.
And then there are the little things, like when the kids find pieces of enemy flesh still stuck between their teeth after going back home.
For a series for and about kids, The Animorphs doesn’t shy away from death, the horrors of war, and the complications of intergalactic geopolitics. And part of the magic is that the authors refuse to talk down to their audiences.
“Being able to turn into animals is just plain fun, and we made it scary and creepy and mind-bending,” author Katherine explains in a 2016 interview.
“We used the premise to talk about big things with kids, and we think they appreciated that. And then we’d have a fight between an alien and a kid-turned-tiger, and seriously, how is that not cool?”
The authors were mindful about not setting out specifically to teach kids anything. Instead of building the story with philosophy or education in mind, they went the other way around, using the heavier themes in service of the story.
“Goals number one, two, and three were to have readers snapping through the pages and forgetting to breathe,” Katherine shares. “And way down around goal No. 4 was, ‘Hey, let’s consider the nature of consciousness.’”
On Tobias, Queerness, and What It Means to Be Human
Throughout the series, the kids quite literally dehumanize themselves in order to survive and fight. But of the many storylines in five years’ worth of chapter books, it is Tobias’s story that has found special meaning for queer audiences.
At the end of the first book, Tobias stays in morph longer than the two-hour deadline and becomes trapped in the body of a hawk. Over time, we learn that he didn’t have much to lose in his human life, and it’s implied that a part of him meant to get stuck as a hawk. And when he eventually regains his ability to morph back into his old self, nothing truly feels right.
Though his storyline isn’t specifically about gender and sexuality — he’s canonically pretty straight — the idea of being trapped in a body that isn’t yours has resonated with trans people growing up. He ultimately rejects a clear label for who he is, accepting himself as both bird and boy. Who he is will never truly match what other people see, and that’s okay.
Beyond Tobias’s story arc, we also see the kids navigate their teenage lives and the greater galaxy with a heavy secret. They’re different from their peers, and being found out means being captured or hurt. We see this paranoia eat at them, too. They’re never truly safe unless they’re with each other.
Years later, the writers admit that they didn’t mean to write such a clear allegory for growing up queer, but they are pretty happy about it.
Through the character of Ax, meanwhile, we also get to glimpse what being human means from the perspective of an alien. More specifically, an alien who doesn’t have a mouth, and therefore has a heck of a time pronouncing words and eating food when he morphs into a human. Plus, his narratives clue us in on what’s going on with intergalactic geopolitics, and the earth’s unfortunate place in it.
Once, Ax says, “‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ A human named Patrick Henry said that. I wonder if the Yeerks knew before they came to conquer Earth that humans said things like that. I wonder if the Yeerks knew what they were getting into.”
No Happy Endings in War
The series wrapped up in 2001, with an ending that raised plenty of parents’ eyebrows. It was far from triumphant, and just like the rest of the books, the final installment was thrilling and sad.
The war ends, yes, but the pain and chaos it caused don’t go away. Katherine says, “Some people who survive war go on with their lives, some come away stronger, some are shattered, but all are changed. We didn’t want to lie to kids about that.”
In a letter written in response to the controversy over the ending, she also wrote, “So you don’t like the way our fictional war came out? 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.”
Five Mall Rats Took a Shortcut One Night, and Here We Are
Being a fan of a long-finished, criminally underrated book series about intergalactic war and animal trivia in 2021 can be difficult, especially in the wake of a failed TV show and an upcoming movie that the writers have severed their ties to.
But there is some good news. There’s a graphic novel by the talented Chris Grine. Plus, you can read the entire series for free online — which the authors have been pretty open to — for a good old trip down traumatic memory lane.
There’s so much more about the books to re-explore, including an android race masquerading as humans through holograms (with an alternate alien explanation for the nature of dogs) and a secret chess match between all-powerful supernatural beings pulling the strings.
That, and the animal experiences are still cool after all these years — whether it’s the joys of being a dolphin, the power and excitement of being a falcon, or the icky wonder of being a cockroach.