Everybody wants to be a cat—but do they really? Animal transformations are a staple of our pop culture, from mega hits like Harry Potter to lesser-known but still awesome books like Holly Black’s The Curse Workers. We love seeing stories where the protagonists can turn into animals and hide from or attack their enemies. However, some of these properties gloss over the actual “transformation” part of an animal transformation, and I think the way the animal transformation is handled can add a lot to a story.
For a story all about animal transformation, look no further than Animorphs, a billed-as-children’s series that depicts an alien invasion on Earth. In order to fight the invasion, five kids are given alien morphing technology that allows them to morph, or turn into, any animal that they’ve touched. The kids soon find that Earth’s abundance of species gives them a wide range of weapons with which to fight the alien Yeerks. Insects can be used for spying; tigers and wolves for fighting; dogs can go incognito basically everywhere.
However, the morphing process isn’t beautiful or logical—the kids have nightmares about insect legs exploding from their chests or bird beaks hardening on elongated lips. Neither is the animal mind all fun and games—once they’re morphed, the first thing the kids have to do is get used to the animal mind. When Tobias morphs for the first time, into his pet cat, all he wants to do is chase strings and be petted. Similarly, Jake morphs into his pet dog and ends up barking at another dog (his actual pet), and then is devastated when his brother scolds him for being a bad dog. And in one of the earliest books, the group morphs into ants to sneak into a bad guy’s house, and they’re completely subsumed into the hive mentality of the ants. They get the information they need, but are almost unable to morph out and escape in the process. It’s a very realistic depiction of what it would actually be like to turn into an animal.
On the other side of things, the morphing technology also expedites exploration of the themes of Animorphs. The kids force their animal morphs to do what they want, and empathetic Cassie worries that this makes them like their alien enemies, the Yeerks, who can control other species’ minds. Because the group travels far and wide (and breaks into several zoos) in order to get their morphs, they’re able to meet many different animals and cultures. It’s as if through these morphs, the Earth itself is fighting against its invaders.
In Tamora Pierce’s Immortals quartet, Veralidaine Sarrasri, known as Daine, is a girl with an overabundance of wild magic. As she soon discovers, not only does this wild magic allow her to talk with animals and to heal them, with enough training, she can turn into them as well. Over the course of four books, Daine masters all of these powers and learns to further them—by the end of the series, not only can she turn wholly into an animal, she can also turn different parts of her body into animal parts. Once, when she needed to spy on a group of people, she made elephant ears for herself; when chasing a villain, she used her knowledge of bird anatomy to construct a supernaturally-fast bird.
Similar to the Animorphs, at first, Daine gets so far into the animal minds that she forgets she’s even human. After her family is killed by a pack of roving bandits, she gets a nearby wolf pack to hunt them down and she practically turns into a wolf in the process. She starts walking on all fours and trying to lick her own wounds. It’s only after her pony companion Cloud starts biting her that she realizes she is not a wolf. She starts walking on two legs and is able to get to a teacher who helps her learn to control her wild magic.
Daine’s connection with animals affects her in more idiosyncratic ways as well. For one, she gradually turns vegetarian. In the third book, she’s at supper with the prince of Carthak and explains:
“Last spring we were rounding up killer unicorns and bandits cornered me. I’d gotten separated from Numair and panicked. I changed into a wild goose.” Remembering, she sighed.
“Big mistake?” There was sympathy in his voice.
“They got me with a barbed arrow. I escaped, but almost lost the arm. Anyway, ever since I could take on a creature’s mind or shape, I can’t eat game of any kind. I eat fish, and domestic meat like beef or chicken, but then, I never wanted to be a fish, and I close out the thoughts of barnyard animals. I’m sorry. I used to hunt and eat game with the best of them, but not anymore.”
The prince looked thoughtful. “So there are drawbacks to your power.”
“There’s drawbacks to any power, Your Highness.”
—from Emperor Mage
Both Daine and the Animorphs show that transforming into an animal can be fun, but like any magical power, it should come with limits and drawbacks, both of the physical and mental variety. Both stories labor to show the protagonists learning to master their powers and their reactions, positive and negative, to that power; that makes the whole thing much more believable. Transforming into animals is the meat of both these stories, and both authors, K.A. Applegate and Tamora Pierce, put it front and center so we can see how it affects every part of the world. It would be awesome if other stories did worldbuilding like this.