I’m feeling nostalgic today (as with any day that ends in Y), so I decided to take a look back at some stuff. Yes, I know, real original, but I have one feature that makes my segment different…SHUT UP! That’s what.
Today, I want to look back on a book series that I loved as a kid and could totally have made some good money at V-Stock if I’d known they accepted those books instead of throwing them all in the dumpster. Animorphs.
For those of you who haven’t heard of them, congratulations on having basic cable before the age of 16 (cheap parents…) Animorphs is a sci-fi kids/young adult series about five kids who get the power to morph into any animal they touch by a crash-landing alien, who warns them of an evil species come to invade their planet. So they kids use their newfound morphing powers to combat this evil, except one of them gets stuck as a bird and they get a new alien friend who occasionally forgets how awesome he is.
Hmm…not the best commercial for the series.
Still, there’s a nugget of greatness, and that’s in the paranoia. The Yeerks, the bad guys, are parasites that can invade and control anybody. Only a bunch of pre-teens are even aware of the invasion, and they can’t tell anybody for fear of being caught and/or killed. And if the bad guys weren’t being secretive, they had an entire Wheel of Imorality of ways to kill you.
There were plenty of threats, so it easy to root for the cast of underdogs. The best was Tobias, a kid who goes past the two-hour time limit of an animal morph and consequently gets STUCK as a hawk for the rest of his life. He later gets the ability to morph again, but the hawk is his base form. He can even become human again, but only two hours or he’s stuck forever with no powers. That. Is. TORTURE.
Yeah, there were some surprisingly mature moments for a kids series. There was a lot of angst about living a secret life, a lot of limbs being hacked off (seriously, there was at least one severed something in every story–they healed when you de-morphed), even the occasional sex joke. Seriously, the Wikipedia entry says that “Horror, war, dehumanization, sanity, morality, innocence, leadership, freedom, and growing up are the core motifs.” How many ADULT series can brag that much?
But aside from that, there were a lot of great non-human elements, too. The author really knew how to write about animals and clearly did some research. She also knew her aliens, making up a good handful and giving them all serious complications. Some Yeerks weren’t evil. These bladed demon monsters were originally pacifists who used their blades to eat tree bark. The Andalites are the “good guys,” but they cross some serious moral lines more than once.
The books were written by an indefatigable author known as K.A. Applegate. I say indefatigable because she pretty much wrote one EVERY MONTH. Not joking, every month, there was a new book. The books only ran about 150 pages or so, with big type, but a lot could happen in a book. But research on Wikipedia has shown me that she used LOT of ghost writers starting halfway through the series. Well…that’s lame.
Here are some of my favorite plotlines (HERE BE SPOILERS!):
- Jake, the leader, becomes enslaved by a Yeerk and the others have to figure out how to get it out of him.
- Tobias discovers that his runaway dad was actually the alien who first gave them their powers ( and was then eaten right in front of him.)
- The Ellimist (God-like character and occasional deus ex machina) shows the Animorphs an alternate future, where the Yeerks have one, the Animorphs are enslaved, and Tobias, the hawk kid? The heroes cooked and ATE him!
- Marco makes jokes because his mom is dead. But then finds out she’s not only alive, not only enslaved by a Yeerk, but that Yeerk is the freaking LEADER of the Yeerks!
- A three-part story where the kids enlist a new Animorph. Who tries to kill them all and nearly succeeds. So they trap him as a rat and watch for two hours as he becomes trapped in that form. He’s pleading for mercy the entire time.
Now, as the series went on, it got tired. The kids ended up having their identities revealed and gathering a small army of morphers. But the bad guys got the power to morph, too. So they basically killed the fun of the story. I stopped reading around 40-something, but picked up the last book, number 54.
It was HORRIBLE. One character pointlessly dies on chapter 2. The enemy leader GIVES UP in chapter 3! Then random crap happens until we get a Soprano’s-style cutoff ending that left you in a whirlwind of whatthecrapery. The author actually had an epilogue that was basically an apology for the terrible ending!
Still, before its downfall, Animorphs was a strong series. There were some longer books that were even better. Most books followed the first-person narrative of one protagonists. But there were four “Megamorphs” books in which the narrator changed ever chapter. That allowed for some serious scale and Applegate delivered. The first was the best with a monster that would HUNT the Animorphs if they morphed. Their one power becomes a targeting feature.
But K.A. expanded her universe even farther by chronicling the adventures of some of the alien species. These were her strongest works, the best of them all, the best book in the entire series, being the Andalite Chronicles.
The genius of this book rested in its sheer tragedy. This is the alien, Elfangor, who DIED in the first chapters of the first book. From the start, you know he has a horrible ending, but the book just sucks you in. You follow this character, watch him grow, watch him endure trial after trial, but in the end, everything is taken from him. He loses his friends, loses his love, and even inadvertently causes the existence of the main series’ bad guy. It’s the rise and fall of a great warrior, one of the greatest allies in the fight against the Yeerks. It ends with him giving the kids their powers and facing down the bad guy with complete defiance, and the story fades to nothing.
It’s a beautiful kind of pain, and while I outgrew the series, this is the one book I genuinely regret throwing away. It’s rare that an author can write so compelling a piece when the character is not only an alien, but you already know his fate.
I hope you got the chance to read this series when you were younger. It was far from perfect, but I’ll always remember the series as a group of children valiantly fighting to ensure that Elfangor’s sacrifice was not in vain.