Animorphs? a Cheesy But Creepy Book to Read

Animorphs? a Cheesy But Creepy Book to Read

How do I convey the overabundance of books in the 1990s? They had their own aisle in every supermarket and spilled over into the checkout lane so you could buy them along with gum and nail clippers on the spur of the moment. Their pages were as off-white and delicate as Pringles, their covers were so shiny they were almost slimy, and as soon as you touched them, your fingerprints polka-dotted them. They weighed next to nothing and cost next to nothing.

What were they talking about? Just what are they talking about? Every Hollywood film had a tie-in novelization, plus one tie-in novelization of a Hollywood film’s tie-in TV show. There was a very pink show in which Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen solved low-stakes mysteries (presumably fictional, though it wasn’t entirely clear). There was a ubiquitous best selling book that was only two hundred pages long and was about a little boy being brutalized by his sadistic and increasingly creative mother; then there was a sequel, and another sequel, and another sequel. “You insatiable little book-suckers,” the publishing industry sneered, hurling chicken soup at a dozen newly identified soul subtypes, “won’t you read anything?”

Hundreds of books churned out on a monthly basis by teams of frantic ghostwriters

It was an era of quantity over quality, an unrelenting glut, especially for children’s books. A typical “series” back then meant hundreds of books churned out on a monthly basis by teams of frantic ghostwriters. They could be ordered by the pound. They frequently came with a free bracelet or trinket, as if bribed. There were 181 Sweet Valley High books, 233 Goosebumps books, and so many Baby-Sitters Club books that Scholastic has never made the full number public (by my count, it was at least 345 if you include all the spin-offs)—and they were all, to some extent, disposable crap.

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But then there were the Animorphs.

 

When you mention Animorphs in front of certain millennials, they make a certain sound—a sharp inhalation, followed by a soft “Oh!” No other series from that era elicits such an emotional response. “I must have read a thousand of those!” says the author of Goosebumps and The Babysitters Club. But Animorphs go quiet; we’re suddenly twelve again, and we’re suppressing our excitement for fear of being teased for caring too much. “Oh,” we say quietly, “I loved the Animorphs.”

Loving Animorphs maybe Slightly Embarassing

Loving the Animorphs has always been slightly embarrassing. The series lasted from 1996 to 2001 and included 54 books plus spin-offs, all credited to “K.A. Applegate” (in reality, they were written by the husband-and-wife team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, with ghostwriters taking over after Book 25). The Animorphs books, like Goosebumps and The Baby-Sitters Club, were a product of the Scholastic industrial complex, which meant they looked like disposable crap. If you didn’t read them, it’s probably because their cheesy cover art turned you off. It was always a variation on the same theme: a human adolescent “morphing” into an animal thanks to primitive computer graphics. A floppy-haired white boy from the 1990s became a jaguar (Book 11); a pretty black girl became a butterfly (Book 19); and a statuesque blonde became a giant squid (Book 20). (Book 27). You could make the transformation occur and un-occur by quickly flipping the pages using crude flip-book illustrations on the bottom right corner of each page. The entire series appeared to be nothing more than a showcase for these software-generated images, which weren’t especially impressive even then.

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Despite this, the books (Animorphs) were excellent

If you’d already made up your mind about the books based on their covers, their premise was unlikely to change your mind. Even now, I hesitate to explain it because it sounds so ridiculous: Yeerks are alien slugs that slither into the human ear, take up permanent residence in the brain, and control the host’s body from within. Except for five teenagers—Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Marco, and Tobias—who have conveniently acquired the magical power (I mean, “alien technology”) to transform into animals, none of the planet is aware of this extraterrestrial threat. In between school, homework, and trips to the mall, our heroes find time to fight the Yeerks, a job that requires frequent travel to the Amazon rainforest, the North Pole, the deep sea, outer space, and, at one point, the Late Cretaceous period. Nobody ever discovers their secret. They also have a blue centaur sidekick named Ax who is obsessed with cinnamon buns.

 

Look, I’m aware! I understand how it sounds. Despite this, the books were excellent. They were dark, witty, and thrilling, as well as endlessly inventive and heartbreakingly sad. They made me laugh until I cried myself to sleep. I’ve been thinking about them for the past two decades.

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I’m not alone in this. Animorphs have received a steady trickle of belated critical attention in recent years. Those articles, including this one, bear the burden of proving that the series was not disposable crap—despite the fact that it looked, sounded, and was made into an inexplicable live-action Nickelodeon TV show that was disposable crap. Something about this intellectual exercise makes us all feel like petulant twelve-year-olds in the supermarket, insisting to our skeptical parents that these books are not stupid, they’re educational, and they’re totally worth $3.99, please, please, please!

According to Matt Crowley of the AV Club, the whole thing was a metaphor for puberty

As a result, today’s Animorphs apologies tend to assert that the series wasn’t really about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens—that it was about something else, though no one agrees on what. According to Matt Crowley of the AV Club, the whole thing was a metaphor for puberty. Tor’s Meghan Ball and The Mary Sue’s Lindsey Weedston emphasize the film’s feminist message. According to Tres Dean of Geek.com, Applegate was a “prophet” whose books predicted 9/11 and the Iraq War. Many fans, including myself, find a compelling transgender narrative in Tobias, who chooses to live forever in the body of a red-tailed hawk rather than continue living as a boy. I briefly considered arguing in this essay that the series was really about the experience of being a child inappropriately entrusted with an adult secret.

None of these interpretations are incorrect. But none of them feel quite right to me as explanations for what made the books so good. I don’t think we liked them because of their allegorical significance. We liked them because they were exactly what they seemed to be: a show about five teenagers who transform into animals to fight aliens.

the writing remained of Animorphs completely true to the emotional

It felt so genuine. Regardless of how ridiculous the plots became, the writing remained completely true to the emotional and psychological realities of the characters’ situations. Each book began with the narrator Animorph (a term the characters despised and used only with wry irony) directly addressing the reader. “My name is Rachel,” or “My name is Marco,” they began, and then apologetically explained that they couldn’t tell you their last name, exact age, or location because it was too dangerous. They shouldn’t be writing this at all, but they were willing to take the risk because the fate of the world was at stake. The sense of impending doom was palpable and convincing; it was a remarkable narrative technique. (Jean Guerrero of LitHub admits to mistaking the books for nonfiction as a child.)

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Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Marco, and Tobias are real people who experienced unspeakable horror. I may not remember the specifics of the Animorphs’ trip to the rainforest, but I do remember Jake, the reluctant leader carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, with absolute clarity. I’m not sure why Rachel had to morph into a giant squid, but I’ll never forget Rachel, the popular fashionista turned unstoppable killing machine—how much she loved the war, how disturbed she was by her own newfound bloodlust, how her fellow Animorphs increasingly relied on her to do their dirty work even as they quietly speculated that she was a psychopath. (She’s the character who is frequently invoked as a feminist role model nowadays, a flattening oversimplification that I believe does her a disservice.) I’m still not sure whether Cassie, the idealistic pacifist, was brave or naive in sympathizing with the Yeerks and attempting to compromise with them on occasion. I still get choked up thinking about Marco, who discovered that the highest-ranking Yeerk had possessed his mother’s body and that he would have to kill her. (“I love you, Mom,” he said softly as he pushed her off the ledge. My soul!) I could go on and on about this.

 

But if you didn’t read them in the 1990s, I’m not sure I can persuade you. The books are no longer in print. You can find crumbling old copies here and there, but I doubt you’ll be able to see past the sans serif font, the barrage of sub-Star Trek sci-fi jargon (Kandrona rays, Gleet BioFilters, Z-space transponders), and the cartoony onomatopoeias littering every page—hawk-Tobias screeching Tseeeer!, Yeerk laser blasters going TSEEEW! Can I really expect you to read fifty-four of these in good conscience? Even if you did, it wouldn’t be the same as being twelve years old and reveling in the sheer abundance of it all at the supermarket in 1998. These books were written with that twelve-year-old in mind, not with you in mind. They were designed to be discarded.

Animorphs Fan = Cult Religion

Being an Animorphs fan today is like being a witness for a cult religion that will never gain another convert. We now live in a different world, one in which publishers pay a single author to write a handsome show horse of a hardcover once a year, rather than dozens of ghostwriters to crank out flimsy assembly-line paperbacks all day. Animorphs will always fall short of the aesthetic standard set by Harry Potter and The Hunger Games in such a world. This is unjust because, by many other measures, it is the superior series. It certainly merits its own film franchise. But, as the Animorphs were painfully aware—as all twelve-year-olds are—life isn’t fair.

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The mystery of Animorphs is not so much why it has been forgotten as it is how it became so good in the first place. How did the Scholastic factory, grinding out book after book after book, manage to squeeze out a diamond amidst the coal? What made Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Marco, and Tobias jump off the page and become real to us? I’m about to start a graduate degree in fiction and I still have no idea how that works. I know it’s no more likely to happen in literary fiction than in science fiction, children’s fiction, or fast-paced fiction written for a faceless corporation. As far as I can tell, a novelist has very little control over her characters’ realism: they either come to life on their own or they don’t. I’m grateful to Applegate and colleagues for demonstrating that all you can do—all any writer can do—is write. The remainder is alien technology.

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