When I was a kid, my elementary school took part in this “encourage kids to read” program—most likely the Scholastic Reading Club—that was also probably a ploy for people to buy more books from Scholastic. But every month or so, our teacher would pass out the Scholastic reading catalogs, and my brother and I quickly latched onto one series: Animorphs.
Animorphs was a book series that had a new book out every couple of months, making it more like a TV show than other book series where you’d have to wait at least a year for the next installment. This series definitely got the most money from us—I don’t think we’d discovered the existence of the library yet. Every time we saw this in the catalog, we’d go home and clamor for our parents to pay for it, and this worked until we had roughly half of the fifty-four book series, at which point my parents forcibly introduced us to the library. But it was too late. We were hooked.
Like many stories, Animorphs was about an alien invasion, but in this case, the aliens were more-or-less invisible. The Yeerks, said aliens, are slug-like aliens who can crawl into a brain cavity and then take over the body, controlling every movement it makes. The people controlled by Yeerks are, naturally, called Controllers. Because the Yeerks are unhappy with their slug existence, they quickly figured out that they can live by taking over others’ bodies. They’re secretly infiltrating Earth, hoping to get host bodies without actually waging war.
Enter the Andalites; another alien race, best described as blue centaur-like aliens with bladed tails, eye stalks, and no mouths. We don’t find out till later, but they’re directly responsible for the Yeerks gaining spaceships and spreading across most of the known universe, and they feel honor-bound to stop the Yeerks. Their battles with the Yeerks over Earth haven’t really been noticed by the inhabitants of Earth—until one Andalite, Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul, crashes to Earth in his spaceship. In an abandoned construction site at night, he encounters our five protagonists: Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco, innocent teenagers walking home from a night out at the mall. He bestows upon them the Andalites’ Escafil device, a blue cube that gives our protagonists the morphing technology that has, up till this point, only been used by Andalites. When a person who can morph touches an animal, they can absorb that animal’s DNA and then morph into that animal. Elfangor tells them that they must use the power well before he’s killed by the series’ main antagonist, Visser Three.
Each book in the Animorphs series is narrated by one protagonist, and because of this rotation, each protagonist is given a chance for character-centric plotlines and serious character development. The characters are wildly diverse; not just in ethnicity, but in interests, family, and morals. Cousins Jake and Rachel are white, as is Tobias; Cassie is Black, and Marco is Latino. While Jake and Cassie come from loving two-parent families, Rachel’s parents are divorced, Marco’s single father isn’t coping well after Marco’s mom’s supposed death, and Tobias’s aunt and uncle have never cared for him. Later on, the gang finds Elfangor’s little brother, Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, in another crashed spaceship on Earth, and take him into their group. “Group of teenagers saving the Earth” has been done before, of course, but Animorphs, for all that it started in 1996, never bought into the trope that only a white guy could save the Earth. And beyond that, the diversity of the group and their families made the characters much more than cookie-cutter heroes.
Because every character was given a chance to have some character development due to the rotating narrators, we get to see some truly well-developed female characters. Though Rachel and Cassie are as different as apples and oranges, they’re the best of friends. Rachel is athletic and very conventionally attractive, and when people look at her they expect an airheaded blonde supermodel. But we quickly learn that she’s just as human as anyone; she has trouble dealing with her parents’ divorce and with looking after her younger sisters, and she’s conflicted about whether or not to go study with a head gymnastics coach rather than dedicate more time to fighting the Yeerk invasion. When the group first starts fighting the Yeerks, Rachel’s the most into it—in morph, she feels more powerful than she has in a long time, and she has to deal with what she sees as the newfound bloodthirsty side of herself. Cassie, on the other hand, is the most morally conflicted about what the group is doing: both the killing of Yeerks and Controllers, and the group’s forcible control over their morphs. Though her caring nature marks her as the voice of morality for the group, it’s very difficult to be a levelheaded voice in war, and her actions paint her not as a female moral compass for men but rather just as another point of view.
Though the idea of turning into animals through morphing was what drew me into the series (I was and still am a huge animal lover), what got me most about this series was a plot that soon revealed itself to be so much more than just bad guys vs. good guys. My favorite characters, on an average day, were Cassie, Cassie, Cassie, Cassie, and Tobias, and it’s through Cassie’s morals and ideals that many of the true lessons at the heart of the series come to light. Beyond the giddy excitement of each new morph—author K.A. Applegate did a stellar job writing about the inside of each animal’s head—we also got Cassie’s fear that by morphing into an animal and then controlling what that animal must do, the group was acting in ways akin to how the Yeerks were acting with their host bodies. That’s a fascinating moral conflict indeed, but Cassie’s empathy for everyone, even their enemies, is a major boost for the group. In one book, Cassie’s insistence on saving a bunch of skunk babies results in her acquiring the morph of an adult skunk that deals Visser Three a significant, if temporary, setback. In another book, Cassie voluntarily offers her own head to a Yeerk to get it out of a frightened little girl; though Cassie is horrified by the feeling of being controlled, it’s through her actions that the group gains a Yeerk ally and a deeper understanding of Yeerk culture and what the Yeerks are after.
Each alien race, in fact, is more than one-dimensional enemy or ally. Before the Andalites and spaceships, the Yeerks were just blind slugs living in ponds on a backwater planet. Applegate makes us understand that the Yeerks aren’t all power-hungry, sociopathic maniacs—some of them just want to live, to see, to walk, to feel the wind against their skin. Similarly, though the Andalites say that they want to save Earth, they aren’t all good-hearted: many are arrogant and look down on all species they see as lesser, like the Hork-Bajir or the humans, and their culture soon reveals itself to be deeply sexist and ableist. Even the Hork-Bajir, a scary alien race that stands at least seven feet tall and have blades growing from each limb, are revealed to have been created for a benign purpose: they were originally meant to take care of and strip bark from trees before the Yeerks decided they would make fine host bodies. Because of Cassie, we and the group are taught to consider everyone’s personal perspectives before judging them too harshly, or killing them outright.
Cassie was always guided by her own stringent set of ethics, even in the middle of a war. Though Applegate painted the series as a children’s series on the surface, one shouldn’t be fooled. The books were full of gruesome depictions of battle and death, as well as war crimes, genocide, torture, Yeerk mind control, and various other horrors. The Animorphs were in essence child soldiers, and Applegate took that idea and made it psychologically and physically real for her characters. Throughout the series, their families and friends are endangered and they themselves face severe psychological repercussions thanks to their actions. They’re at war, and although the Animorphs do their fair share of joking around, Applegate never lets us forget it. That’s why Cassie’s insistence on doing the right thing was so formative for a younger me—in war, the right thing doesn’t always mean that everyone lives or that everyone wins. Kind, empathetic Cassie makes arguably the most horrifying decisions of the series.
The ending of Animorphs was realistic, especially for a presumably children’s series. Main characters actually died (as people do in war—looking at you, Harry Potter), other characters suffered from PTSD, and still others split from the group over actions taken in the final battle. In fact, so many fans were upset at the ending that Applegate herself responded to them online. Here’s what she had to say (spoilers redacted):
I’m just a writer, and my main goal was always to entertain. But I’ve never let Animorphs turn into just another painless video game version of war, and I wasn’t going to do it at the end. I’ve spent 60 books telling a strange, fanciful war story, sometimes very seriously, sometimes more tongue-in-cheek. I’ve written a lot of action and a lot of humor and a lot of sheer nonsense. But I have also, again and again, challenged readers to think about what they were reading. To think about the right and wrong, not just the who-beat-who. And to tell you the truth I’m a little shocked that so many readers seemed to believe I’d wrap it all up with a lot of high-fiving and backslapping. […]
So, you don’t like the way our little 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.
If you’re looking for a great series filled with action, adventure, and deep moral themes, Animorphs is the series for you. Definitely check it out if you haven’t already. Then please come back and tell me about how this little children’s series changed your entire world.