Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“Animorphs” by K.A. Applegate

Reviewed by Aaron Larson

My first encounter with the Animorphs series was as a kid in the late 90s; a carton of orange juice that my family had recently purchased offered by mail order a free copy of the recently released thirty-sixth book (The Mutation, which I now know is one of the least-accessible mid-series entries). Enthralled by the cover image of a boy transforming into an orca, I couldn’t resist.

Even though every book in the series makes an effort to summarize the basic plot in its opening pages, I was thoroughly lost when I finally got hold of The Mutation. Why was one of major characters a red-tailed hawk? Why was dialogue sometimes set off by brackets instead of quotation marks when the characters spoke? (They communicate by telepathy after transforming into animals; I later learned that these brackets demarcated this “thought-speak” from regular spoken dialogue.)

Despite these questions, I was hooked. I proceeded to devour every Animorphs book I could get my hands on—including the fateful first entry, The Invasion. The premise of the series, at its core, was simple: five teenagers are given the power to transform into animals so they can fight a race of parasitic aliens who have come to Earth in order to enslave mankind. What wasn’t to love?

But then (as tends to happen), I grew up. I became a more sophisticated reader. I moved on to writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I went to college as an English major. I wrote novels of my own. I didn’t read silly books for kids anymore. That’s what I thought, anyway—until a copy of that fateful book, The Invasion, strayed across my path once again early in 2015. And just like before, I couldn’t resist. I picked it up and began to read.

Three months later, I was head-over-heels. I had purchased the entire series ($320 for a used set—what a bargain!). I had read all sixty-two of them (and even forced myself through a shameful parody called “Vegemorphs,” which contained a disturbing number of vegetable puns). Now, here I am: fully prepared to defend Animorphs as one of the greatest complete works of contemporary fiction for kids and adults alike.

“But how?” you protest. “A children’s series about animal-morphing kids can’t be that exceptional, can it?”

It can. Let me explain.

Animorphs rotates between six viewpoint characters: Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco, and Ax. The first five—the Animorphs proper (Ax is an alien who joins them in book four; as such, the series does not formally consider him part of the group)—fit neatly into a storytelling trope commonly known as “the five-man band.”

The five-man band is fulfilled by characters in five archetypal roles:

  • The Hero (Jake, the leader)
  • The Lancer (Marco, the pragmatist)
  • The Tough Guy (Rachel; an obvious subversion of a typically male role, but the first of Animorph’s many critiques of storytelling clichés)
  • The Smart Guy (Tobias, who becomes trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk in the first book), and
  • The Chick (Cassie, the moral center of the group)

The five-man band is a formula found frequently in fiction and used perhaps most egregiously in slasher films; it is typically implemented as a convenient (read: lazy) storytelling device which provides a shortcut to easy (read: lazy) characterization. Animorphs starts out no different. But over the course of the series, these five characters—and Ax, for his part—are pulled apart like cotton candy. They become deeper. Richer. More real.

Jake, unsurprisingly, is put under tremendous pressure over the course of the series. He holds the lives of his friends and the fate of the human race in his hands—and Animorphs does not shy away from the consequences of his actions. When Jake messes up, people die.  The guilt and paranoia of leadership eat away at him like acid, leaving behind something that is cold and cracked and clinical. He is tragic. He is heroic. He is the least subversive character in the series, but subversive is not what Jake needs to be: he is the rock, the foundation that holds everything else together. Without him, there would be no Animorphs.

Rachel is perhaps the most dynamic character in the series. Her “let’s do it” butt-kicking attitude made her my favorite in the early books; as the series goes on, however, she becomes—there’s no other way to say it—a monster. She thrives on the war, the bloodshed, feeding off it like a drug. Reading the books told from her perspective made me feel…well, dirty. Here is a teenager girl fully capable (perhaps even a committer) of murder, and yet I cared about her. I had been through so much with her. Did Animorphs hoodwink me into loving a villain? No. Rachel is too complicated for terms like “hero” and “villain.” She is human.

Tobias, oh, what to say about Tobias? He’s the fan favorite. The heartthrob. The loner. The tortured soul. And, as I mentioned, he’s trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk. Permanently. He is the first victim of the Animorphs’ morphing ability, what they call a nothlit; if they stay in the body of an animal for more than two hours, they stay that way forever. Tobias is also unquestionably the most intelligent of the Animorphs. Careful readers will notice that the books written from the perspective of Tobias implement a level of vocabulary and grammatical syntax that hovers just a hair above that of his peers. His situation, then, leaves him in a troubled thematic no-man’s-land, where the mind and morality of a human are locked into the body and brain of an animal. On top of it all, his chemistry with Rachel crackles—I dare you to find two characters in all of literature who strike such sparks.

Marco is a difficult character to pin down. He thinks of himself as the comedian of the group, but his lighthearted nature gives way to a wicked utilitarianism later in the series that often accomplishes more than Jake’s bold visions or Rachel’s ruthless approach. He is also the character with perhaps the strongest overarching plot, which I won’t discuss further here so as not to spoil some spectacular twists. Marco plays back and forth across the line between saying just what needs to be said and saying what shouldn’t be said; he is offensive just as often as he is hilarious, and that makes him a character who is both easy to love and easy to hate. Wherever your opinion ultimately falls on Marco, he is unforgettable.

Then there’s Cassie. Even though some of the best books in the series are told from her perspective, she is frequently listed by readers as their least-favorite character. The reasons are understandable. It is all-too-easy to box Cassie in as the animal-loving environmentalist (cliché alert), but to do so would be to ignore just how complicated her character really is. She is constantly aware of the inherent hypocrisy between what she believes and what she is forced to do as a member of the Animorphs—to become and sometimes kill other creatures. This culminates in the devastating nineteenth book, The Departure, which is a strong contender for the best in the series. Cassie is the only major character who evolves but never truly resolves, and for that she is worth another look.

Animorphs is hyper-conscious of the relationship between its micro-level storytelling (which centers on the roles various organisms fulfill within an ecosystem, a dynamic which is constantly in flux given the Animorphs’ ability to become other than human) and its macro-level storytelling (which centers on the war between the Animorphs/humanity and the parasitic Yeerks, which in turn is part of a grander galactic struggle that becomes clearer later in the series). Although there initially appear to be few similarities between these micro- and macro-level stories, subtle and constant parallels are drawn; humanity’s struggle against an alien species is mirrored in the simple, everyday struggle of predator versus prey.

Let me clarify with an example. When the Animorphs become other creatures, they are influenced by that creatures’ instincts; becoming a dog, for example, fills them with boundless joy. Naturally, they begin to use this effect as a sort of drug, a pick-me-up for when they’re feeling down. Early in the series, the Animorphs also discover that there are humans who voluntarily hand themselves over to be enslaved by the Yeerks. They react with horror and disgust—what right-minded person would willingly give up control of their life to an alien?

Then they see these two situations juxtaposed: is there really any difference? Is giving oneself up to the instincts of an animal that far removed from giving oneself up to the will of an alien? Animorphs is brimming with these kinds of moral riddles and shades of grey—the Yeerk pacifist movement, the ruthless biological warfare implemented by the Andalites (humanity’s supposed saviors), and the tempting high-cost victory pacts offered by the godlike Ellimist and satanic Crayak, just to name a few. If I tried to list them all, we’d be here for the rest of the day and half of tomorrow. Suffice to say, Animorphs is about as far removed from the standard good versus evil plot as you can get (despite the efforts of its cackling primary antagonist, Visser Three). There is enough nuance here to make George R.R. Martin jealous.

A final note that I would be remiss not to mention: Animorphs is also, save for the notorious seventeenth book (which is often cited as offensive, a claim to which I am not entirely unsympathetic), notable for its treatment of disability. Speaking as someone who is disabled, I admired the series’ commitment to an honest portrayal of disability and mental illness—not as problems to be solved, but as debilitating parts of life that one must continually struggle to coexist with. PTSD in particular is an ongoing theme for the series; most of the major characters suffer from it to some degree, and it is an omnipresent pressure that affects them all differently. Animorphs presents an opportunity for disabled readers to feel understood and relevant, and for non-disabled readers to gain empathy and perspective.

I could go on, but I think it’s safe to say that I’ve said enough. Let’s make a deal: I’ll wrap up this review, and you read the first seven books of Animorphs (which I consider to be the introductory “arc” of the series). If you’re not hooked by then, you’ll never be; go ahead and call it quits. But these are short books. Give them a chance. You have nothing to lose and a world of great literature to gain.

I understand the temptation to dismiss Animorphs as being “for kids” and therefore not worth reading, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a series that is both powerful and profound, disturbing and deeply moving. While its fast pace, snappy dialogue, and frantic action will appeal to younger readers, I daresay that many of its underlying themes—trauma, disability, dehumanization, slavery, and genocide, amongst many other cheerful topics—will only be fully appreciated by an older audience. I don’t care what age you are, though: you should really, really read Animorphs.