The Troubles Of Format: Why The Conventions Of Children’s Literature Worked Against ‘Animorphs’

Animorphs was ever present when I was growing up. They were there in every classroom. Every library, both school and public. They weren’t even out of print yet, because I distinctly remember buying book 4 at Chaptersaside. This is pretty standard for children’s books. I mean, it’s the same thing as Goosebumps or Magic School Bus or Nancy Drew or any number of other series. Despite that, finding copies was really hard. Libraries always had several of them, sure, but never the ones you were looking for. They had, like, books 5, 11, 16, 29, 34, and 41, with none of the others – and no, that’s not me picking random numbers. Those are the Animorphs books I remember being the most in circulation. I don’t think I ever saw a library without 5, but finding 53? Forget it!

Normally, that’s okay. With a lot of children’s books, it really doesn’t matter in what order you read them. Take Nancy Drew. It had no long run plot arcs whatsoever. Each book is self contained. All you need to know is that Nancy is an amateur detective, her friends are Bess and George, and she goes around solving crimes. Those facts are reiterated in every book, and even if they weren’t, it’d be obvious, so there’s absolutely no reason why you’d have to start at the first book and work your way through. I never read  Goosebumps, but the impression I got was that it’s similar. Animorphs, though? That’s unique.

Animorphs is usually episodic. Sure. And pretty much every book gives a recap of the premise and makes sure you know who all the characters are, so most of them will make sense if you read them out of order. But there’s also very much a running plot – or maybe plot isn’t the right idea so much as theme. Throughout the entire series, the focus is on how the Animorphs are dealing with the Yeerks. And there is a lot of character development there. It’s so subtle that you might not even realize it at first – but then, you’ll read a situation that mirrors one from twenty books earlier, and the characters will react in such a different way, that you’ll think, holy shit. You do not get the full force of that if you read them out of order.

Sure, it’ll probably make sense if you don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll miss a lot. If you’re reading the series out of order, you miss the development of these kids from wide eyed idealists being like, “oh, we can hold them off until the Andalites get here!” to hardened veterans that know in their bones “if the Andalites come, it won’t be to help us”. You miss Rachel going from a thirteen year old that gets a thrill out of gymnastics to a genuinely terrifying adrenaline junkie that gets off on violence. You miss Jake going from the thoroughly average kid that ends up in charge pretty much because he’s the one that everyone knows and likes to the teenage military commander of the entire planet that sends other kids to die without blinking. Unfortunately…the format of the series made it almost impossible for members of the target audience to get a hold of them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a believer that the structure of the series was hugely beneficial when it comes to telling the story. Applegate’s major strength is how she can pack in the full gamut of human emotion in just over a hundred pages, and the length of the series helped contribute to the impression of a long time passing, as well as helped the slow character development. Fewer, longer books just wouldn’t have had the same effect. However. This was terrible for the reader. Finding the books was hard! I know of at least two people that never read them all, not because they weren’t interested, but because they couldn’t find them, and didn’t know what they’d read and what they hadn’t. Today, you can get them all as ebooks. If there are kids reading them today, they can find them without too much hassle…but the Barnes and Noble website lists each book as four dollars. There are 62 books. That comes out to a lot of money!

It’s an awesome series. I love it with all my heart, as can be evidenced by all my posts tagged Animorphs. I will never not beg people to read them. But wow, was the format a pain for readers.

Aside: I think my memory of the timeline is a bit skewed, because I always say I’ve been a fan since I was eight, but I don’t think the books were still in print at that point, and I feel like I was younger when I bought that book. Maybe eight was when I finally read all of them. Never mind.

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Earning Your Ending: Following Through On Story Themes And The Frustration Of Stories That Don’t

One of the things I admire most about Animorphs has always been the ending. It wasn’t a downer, exactly – the world was saved, after all, and if the cost is the souls of six children…well, many would call it a small price to pay. It was tragedy in the truest sense. The good guys weren’t rewarded with happily ever after. Not because they didn’t deserve a happy ending, not because it’s just, but because it’s war. And like in any real war, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it just was. There is no such thing as a glorious war. Necessary, perhaps, like the one around which Animorphs revolves. But even a necessary war will result in a lot of dead and injured and grieving.

Everything about the ending of the series felt earned. Like this was where it was always headed. It wasn’t a triumphant victory where cutting off the head of the snake or capturing a MacGuffin resulted in the good guys winning. No, it was years of them chipping away at an unstable empire, poking at different places and seeing what worked until it eventually collapsed. And there’s something about the narration…It’s childish. It’s simplistic. It’s so, so real. Because it’s not just a question of them being books for kids, it’s about how they’re written about kids. They’re children’s books from the perspective of a child. There are bits of gorgeous prose interspersed between scenes of horrifying violence and hilarious ones of aliens discovering chocolate. There are references to poems like The Second Coming and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It was children’s literature pointing out the best and worst of humanity, how we don’t have the best track record of tolerating differences, how we kill each other for praying differently to the same god.

A happy ending would have felt dishonest. And the sheer boldness of book 54 still takes me aback. This was a children’s book. Not a young adult one, an unashamed children’s book. A children’s book with no happy ending. That was the gutsiest writing choices I’ve ever seen. That book is probably why I am – or used to be, at least – a bit more susceptible to writer fake outs than most people. Because where most people see a major character death or what looks like an upcoming tragic ending and think, like you would really do it, I remember Animorphs, which did do it. For that reason, book 54 is pretty much my favourite book in the series and one of my favourite books altogether. I am fully in support of happy endings. But there’s a reason it’s the bittersweet ones that stick with me.

Something I’ve found is that epilogues that skip a significant amount of time into the future are dangerous. They run the risk of being contrived happy endings, where we’re told something is happy, but they don’t really feel happy, partially because we don’t see how the characters get to that point. There are two obvious examples of this – the first is the most famous example of young adult dystopian fiction. The second is the children’s series that completely changed the course of children’s publishing.

The Hunger Games was about children being forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment and a rebellion against an oppressive government. At best, I expected it to end bittersweetly. After all, we’re talking about one of the closest equivalents there is to Animorphs. Targeted at a young audience, a huge amount of graphic violence, heavily anti-war themes, a lot of the books dedicated to the characters’ trauma…when Mockingjay came out, I thought I knew, generally, where it was going to go. I even continued thinking that through maybe half the book. It seemed poised to deliver a sad ending. Maybe not quite a tragedy, but certainly not a happy one. And at first it did. But then came the epilogue.

The last chapter of Mockingjay was much more satisfying to me than the epilogue. I didn’t love the book overall – I thought it was by far the weakest of the trilogy. But the last chapter didn’t feel like a cop out. It hinted at future happiness without being too overt and saccharine. District Twelve was in ruins and pretty much everyone decided to leave and never come back. The people that stayed were the ones that thought everywhere else was worse, that had lost everything, that were so traumatized by everything that had happened, the only thing they could think to do was go home. But despite that, Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch were all alive and together and recovering. They found things to focus on. They lived with the only people around that understood what they’d gone through. Katniss and Peeta rediscovered their love for each other. It felt right. But instead of just leaving it at that, there was that epilogue that skipped years into the future to have Katniss watching her children play in a meadow. Maybe it’s just me, but that felt disingenuous. It felt like running away from the earned ending.

On a similar note is Harry Potter. At the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I’d spent my entire life with these characters – the first book was published the same year I was born. I started reading them when I was like four. I wanted a happy ending. I still think the epilogue was a pretty good kind of cheesy, but it was jarring when you compare it to just a few pages before.

I’m not one of those people that hates the Harry Potter epilogue or what Harry named his kids. But skipping ahead nineteen years, skipping the recovery period…it felt kind of cheap. It felt far less fitting than the last chapter. The last chapter wasn’t a downer. It was bittersweet, and much more sweet than bitter – lots of people were dead, but Voldemort was one of them. The war was over. There were still things to do and loose ends to tie up, but it was clearly pointing in a hopeful direction. It wasn’t The Hunger Games, which practically gave me whiplash with the contrast between the epilogue and the rest of the book. It was closer to a logical extension. But it still didn’t feel right.

On the other end of the scale is stories that, instead of forcing a happy ending instead of the earned sad one, are stories that pull a downer out of nowhere, out of the misguided belief that True Art Is Angsty. Like, I recently read My Sister’s Keeper. To me, that came across as such a huge Shoot The Shaggy Dog story, I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a contrived happy ending, it was a contrived and manipulative sad one. Instead of genuinely exploring the characters’ emotions, Jodi Picoult opted for melodrama and cheap twists. I find endings like that just as – if not more – annoying than those that pull a happy one from thin air. Because when it comes to me and endings I find satisfying, it’s more than about earning a happy ending. It’s about following through to the ending you’ve earned, the one that makes sense for the story. That’s not to say a brutal, devastating story can’t have a positive ending, or a mostly positive, hopeful story can’t have a dark one, but if handled poorly, it feels like a cop out. That’s precisely why so few things have ever lived up in my eyes to the Animorphs ending.

The format of Animorphs was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it resulted in books of wildly varying quality being pushed out at a breakneck pace. It meant the series was never going to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It meant that it would never work as a movie adaptation. But I have to love it, because if we had fewer, longer books, or if they were published at a different time or for a different audience, we never would have gotten something like the final book.

That entire book is dedicated to the “what happens now”. And that makes you expect that it’s going to turn around, that it won’t be bleak, that the book will be about them them moving on and getting better. And it does…at the same time as it doesn’t. It has everything every book in the series does – it makes you feel every emotion possible in less than two hundred pages. Even more impressively, it does that without a real driving plot.

Book 54 is more focused on character development than it is with having its own individual plot. It’s about wrapping up the character arcs and plot threads from the preceding books. It’s slow. Or maybe that’s not quite it – slow is close, but the wrong word for the feel of the book. Maybe measured? Introspective? It’s calm. Compared to the frenzied pace of pretty much all the other instalments, it’s downright placid. It gives readers time for it all to sink in. It takes all the brutality of the series and brings it to its natural conclusion, because as it made clear from the beginning, there are no happy endings in war. It’s honest about it – there are no right answers. There are no glorious wars. Some people will be able to move on, even thrive. Others won’t. Because even the most necessary of necessary wars with clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, will end with death, grief, and horror. That’s why I always find myself coming back to Animorphs. It’s one of the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s just too bad it kind of ruined me for books that don’t follow through on what they’ve earned.

Do you have any books with endings that completely satisfied you? Let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.

The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.

Jake From ‘Animorphs’ And The Power Of The Everyman

I know I talk about Animorphs a lot. I’m not sorry. If you’ve read them, you’ll get it, and if you haven’t, you should, because then you’ll get it. Those of you that have – think about the members of the team for a second and where they were at the beginning of the series (or, at least, book 4, when we met them all). Think about what notable character traits and skills they had.

Marco had his analytical mind, caution, greater awareness of real world consequences, and a presumed dead mother than turned up alive as Visser One’s host body. Cassie had her love for animals and natural morphing talent and a range of actually useful skills. Rachel’s impulsiveness and brute force approach to solving her problems made her the team’s best fighter, from the first time she morphed an elephant in the Yeerk Pool. Ax’s alien perspective and familial ties separated him from the others and allowed plots to progress much faster than they would have without his knowledge. And Tobias was a tragic character long before we discovered he was Elfangor’s time displaced son, between his lack of a family that cared for him and being trapped as a hawk. Jake, on the other hand? None of that.

Jake was just a regular old white boy, the dumb jock that wasn’t even that good at being a jock. The younger brother. No major ambitions. He was a pretty standardized leader, making the decisions because he didn’t have as much of an extreme personality as the others. He was calmer under pressure and more composed, not as abrasive as Rachel or Marco, the balance between Rachel’s impulsiveness and Marco’s caution.  He was not operating entirely on logic, nor on impulse. He’s the boring one…And that’s what makes his character development so excellent. His character arc, when compared to everyone else’s? It’s the best handled from beginning to end. Very few moments that didn’t feel true to the character. It was, for lack of a better word, tidy. Not in a sense that it was clean and pretty, and he got what he deserved, but in the utterly tragic hero sense: you see where he’s going. You see his descent into darker and darker decisions, nearly all of which make perfect sense in the moment. You understand what he’s doing and why – he’s fighting an empire with an army of six and a single weapon. It’s a war he can’t afford to lose. So when you go through the series, you’re watching helplessly, knowing the direction he’s going in, but unable to think of any way out of it for him.

Cassie is frequently accused of being a Mary Sue – an assessment that I disagree with. But for argument’s sake, let’s accept it as true. If we do that, we also have to take nearly all the others except Jake as Sues. Rachel is the best fighter on the team with a natural boldness that far exceeds everyone else except perhaps Ax. Marco has and always had the most analytical mind and best ability to see the straight line path to a solution. Not something he had to work on. Tobias is the half alien son of a war prince. Ax is said war prince’s younger brother that has more knowledge of Yeerks and technology than anyone else. Jake is none of those things. He’s an ordinary guy from an ordinary suburb that’s not particularly good at much, but not bad at anything either. He’s decently popular, but not to the extent that Rachel is. He’s brave, but compared to his family – Tom that tried to fight a Taxxon, Naomi that may not be related to him by blood but still attacked a bear with a spice rack, Rachel – he’s practically timid. He’s smart, but his leadership skills needed the entire series to actually develop. At the beginning, he did a lot of dumb things. He nearly got them all killed or enslaved in the very first book because he nearly told a temporarily freed Tom who he was. He morphed in his kitchen, in a house that he knew has a Controller in it. It took a lot of time and character development to get to the point where he could make the decisions he did in, say, book 38, or see the solutions he did in book 53.

None of them are actually Sues, because they’re all well developed characters with plenty of flaws to go along with their strengths. But if you consider a Sue to be a form of wish fulfillment, Jake is definitely the furthest. No one on the planet would fantasize about being Jake. He’s interesting not because of any trait, but because of how his traits and relationships combine. Because of that, he’s not the most common answer to the question “who’s your favourite Animorph?”, but to me, there is no other answer. They all have great qualities. They’re all fun to read about and interesting to consider. But Jake’s character development is out of this world. There’s no comparison. His white middle class nuclear family completely falls apart. He changes the most out of all the characters, in ways both subtle and overt.

It’s an interesting way to use a character. Oftentimes, the Everyman is used as the protagonist because they’re somewhat of a blank slate. They’re an easy way to ease someone into a story. They can be an audience surrogate. Because of their lack of any extreme traits, they’re boring at worst, which makes them a safe person to put in the lead while giving the more extreme personalities that may or may not be popular to less central characters. The audience might grow to love the Everyman or they might latch onto other characters with more distinct traits instead, but there aren’t often reasons to hate them. But if there’s more thought put into it, like in Animorphs, it can be a very powerful tool.

Jake demonstrates just how nuanced the character arc for an utterly average person can be. He got fleshed out over the course of the entire series through slow, steady development, not so much because of any major events. Not like Marco finding out his mother was alive or like Rachel waiting for David to run out of time in morph, not like Cassie meeting Aftran or like Tobias finding out about Elfangor. No, Jake’s was a slow descent from “I’ve got to fight this war to save Tom” and “I’m leading this team because Tobias told me to because I have the least grating personality” to “there’s no way my family comes out of this intact” and “I know what I have to do to get the most people out alive, and I’ll do it”.

Animorphs had a lot of ghostwritten books, which meant there was rather inconsistent quality, particularly in regards to characterization. Jake had moments of that at times, just as the others did – books like 43 and 47 come to mind. But compared to some of the others? Those few moments of bad characterization were really quite rare. The advantage of him not having traits as distinct as the others while still being a distinct character when observed as a whole is that it became much harder to flanderize him. He’s a complicated character with subtle traits that undergoes a lot of growth throughout the series – there are out of character moments…but few that are really due to misunderstanding a characteristic he actually has.

Jake is one of the best written Everymen I’ve ever encountered. He’s more than that – as I’ve said before, he’s one of the best written characters of all time. He’s not static. He’s a great foil for all the characters around him. He’s interesting on his own as well as around others because of how believable his arc is and how well written his relationships are. Sometimes, I find the Everyman boring and get invested in other characters instead. And I used to think that was because the character type in general doesn’t interest me. But that’s not true. Jake proves it. There are a lot of things that authors could learn from Katherine Applegate. How to write distinct and nuanced characters, down to the point where the most interesting and best developed one is the Everyman, tops that list.

Children’s Fiction And Why Two Of The Best Works Of The Past Two Decades Were Made With Kids In Mind

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most universally beloved shows I can think of. Prince Zuko is the go to example for countless people when asked asked about a good redemption arc. Likewise, Animorphs has a fiercely dedicated fanbase and fans – more than just me, I mean – who are quick to explain why each of the leads is so multidimensional. So why is that? What is so special about these children’s works that they attract so much dedication amongst people far older than the target audience? Well…it’s a lot of things.

Brilliantly Written Characters

Hey, guess what – well written characters aren’t exclusive to adult fiction! Oftentimes, I actually prefer those in children’s fiction. I think it can partially be attributed to how when a work is targeted at children, authors feel less of a need for a complex plot. That gives the characters more of a chance to shine. Both ATLA and Animorphs stand as excellent examples of this.

Zuko from ATLA and Jake from Animorphs had two of the absolute best written character arcs of all time. Which is funny, seeing as they probably couldn’t be any more different. Zuko’s character arc is essentially Jake’s inverted, because ATLA is more idealistic than Animorphs ever was. But despite their differences, they’re both pillars of their respective works – Jake is the leader of the Animorpsh, and Zuko is arguably more of an emotional anchor in ATLA than even Aang.

Zuko’s story was a beautiful story of redemption, about struggling and becoming a better person that can help lead the world into a better tomorrow. He was a not so good guy when we first met him that, over the course of three seasons, grew up and proved to his former adversaries that they could trust him, which is essentially the opposite of Jake, who began with ideals. Jake started off believing in concepts like honour in war. He believed in leaving no man behind. There was a reason people trusted him to lead, and that was that he was a good guy. Yes, it was partially because he was the link in the chain, the one person every character had a preexisting relationship with before the construction site. But it was more that their preexisting relationship with him made them all aware that he was a good guy whose decisions they could believe in. Jake’s arc was one of someone with too much responsibility placed on his shoulders who started to make tougher and tougher decisions and whose team became more and more aware of how much he was faking it.

I read a post on Tumblr a while back, from a person that always has intelligent things to say about Animorphs, and it included something that really stuck with me – Jake is a good kid and brilliantly written character, but he’s not an easy person to love. I think the same applies to Zuko (from the point when we first meet him, not the flashbacks to before he was banished). They don’t have the same flaws. They’re very different people. But as much as the audience can love and appreciate both of them, they’re not easy for the people around them to deal with.

Take Mai. Mai loves Zuko, enough to stand up to Azula so he could get out of there. And he loves her back. He misses her when he leaves. He wants her to be happy. He’s delighted to see her again at the end of the finale. But he also has anger issues galore that results in him lashing out at her. He’s socially awkward and terrible at expressing affection. During the episode when they were on Ember Island, he yelled at her for exchanging like six words with some random guy. He also gets so caught up in his problems that he doesn’t spend much time considering her feelings. It’s not his fault that he has other stuff to prioritize. But it does mean that he’s not great at the whole relationship thing. Similarly, there’s Zuko’s relationship with Iroh. Iroh loves him, spent a lot of the series trying to tell him what he was doing was neither morally right nor healthy, but Zuko didn’t listen. Zuko’s arc is, in part, about overcoming these issues.

When it comes to Jake, while his friends love him and are loyal to him, they’re also deeply aware of his flaws and the way that, in order to win the war, he has to be willing to manipulate and use them. That coupled with how his method of dealing with emotion is to repress the hell out of it (in himself) or send Cassie to deal with it (in someone else) means that by the end of the series, Cassie, who spent the entire series loving him, knows she has to walk away. She has to move on, because staying with him would be self destructive. It would have probably killed any chance of them ever coming back together, whether as friends or as a romantic couple. Again, we’re talking about a similar principle as with Zuko, but inverted.

Zuko and Jake are both amazingly written characters with wonderfully complex relationships with other characters, and I think they very much benefit from the target audience of the works to which they belong. Both ATLA and Animorphs have simplistic plots. Neither character was ever involved in much romantic drama. The characters themselves were the focus, and they shone.

Format

The first Animorphs book came out in 1996, the year before a certain boy wizard took over the world and revolutionized children’s literature. I imagine if it were coming out today, instead, there would be a lot fewer books that would probably be longer, each book being closer to one of the Chronicles or Megamorph books, rather than the main series. In a way, I think it’s pretty lucky that it came out when it did, because the format works.

Sure, Animorphs is trashy sci fi for kids that was used as a tool to sell a lot of merchandise to children. Sure, the book a month for years schedule was a way of pushing out a lot of content, regardless of quality. Sure, that’s not normally conducive to a particularly thought provoking franchise, or anything with literary merit. But fortunately, in this one circumstance, it all came together to work in the books’ favour. The brilliance of Animorphs is that the large number of instalments show off how the characters develop, how they perceive themselves, and how their friends see them over the entire length of the series. Most books in the series do the remarkable job of making the reader feel the full gamut of human emotion in about a hundred pages. Even the worst written Animorphs book, the most nonsensical or pointless one – it still has something about it that I’d consider worth reading. I think the same thing can be said about ATLA: most episodes make full use of its twenty minutes in a many other shows – of all lengths and genres – don’t, and even the weakest have value.

Adult – and young adult – fiction wanders. It’s usually longer, giving more time for asides. That’s not the case with most children’s work, especially pre-Harry Potter. There has to be a focus. They have to be tightly plotted in order to be appealing. Each twenty minute ATLA episode, each, say, 120 page Animorphs book did an excellent job of doing that. Both ATLA and Animorphs had breather “episodes” that give the audience time to recover and not descend into Darkness Induced Audience Apathy. Humour and seriousness coexist without intruding on each other. It might occasionally verge onto heavy handed, but both works generally handle it well.

When a work is targeted at an older audience, oftentimes, subtlety will fly out the window. It’s funny – subtlety isn’t really a word I’d think at first to apply to either ATLA or Animorphs. What I’ve always said about the narration of the latter is that it’s simplistic, childish, kind of repetitive, with occasional moments of utter brilliance. It doesn’t get bogged down in the same kind of flowery language present in a lot of books, nor is it the barebones, beige prose style of a lot of adult fiction. It’s just simple and blunt. Despite that, we see nuances that go well beyond what I’ve seen in many works targeted at adults. ATLA might not be quite at that level of carefully illustrated development, but it gives it a fair shot.

When I talk about a lack of subtlety in adult works, it’s not at all a question of violence. I can handle that. You’d be surprised at how horrifyingly violent Animorphs got. But other books, shows, movies, whatnot, they get needlessly graphic with their violence, to the point where it’s gratuitous rather than serving a purpose. Instead of being “gritty” through exploring people and issues, they bring in things like rape or incest or illustrating abuse in painful detail.

In ATLA, we’re explicitly told every realization Zuko has. We see him confront Ozai and call him out for being a terrible parent, we hear him talk through his issues with Azula. Even though his coming to those realizations is more subtle and far from immediate, the culmination of it is very direct. But what we don’t see is every example of Ozai’s abusiveness throughout Zuko’s childhood. Showing us that would be unnecessary, and might even distract from the point. We don’t need to see the abuse itself to see its effect.

It’s kind of similar to the episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Graysons die. We see the shadow, we see the frayed ropes, and we see Bruce’s face, but we don’t see the corpses. From what I understand, that wasn’t the original plan, but censors insisted the scene be changed to make it less graphic. And while I’m usually disappointed when creators have to change things to get past the censors, I think that when it comes to  Robin’s Reckoning, it was for the best. I think it made the scene a lot more powerful.

When it comes to adult fiction, Westworld strikes me as an example of a show that does it right – at least some of the time. It’s filled with violence and abuse, but it’s not fetishized. Gruesome, horrifying things are portrayed as gruesome and horrifying. In the pilot, Dolores’s rape is off screen. It’s not the Game of Thrones style violence against women for shock value and prolonged scenes of graphic abuse. Do I think all of the violence it does have is necessary? No. But I much prefer it to the style of gratuitous sexualized abuse in other works.

Thematic Ideas

Animorphs is a brutal deconstruction of countless tropes. And part of what makes it compelling is that there is very, very rarely an easy out.

Jake is the closest thing to the central main character. The first book was his. He led the team. He was essentially every other main character’s most important relationship. So you’d think he’d be the counterpart to Aang. But no, he’s Zuko’s, because as much as I do like Aang, as much as I’d defend his stance that he couldn’t kill Ozai, that was the easy way out in terms of now he ultimately had something else he could do. Zuko didn’t get the same kind of easy answers Aang did. Aang faced a lot of difficulties, but he never had to make the choice to kill Ozai. Zuko, on the other hand, was ready for that to happen. He was prepared for his father’s death, his sister’s. Was it easier for him than for Jake, because Jake’s childhood was so much happier? No doubt. Which is why the different outcomes in their respective stories worked so well.

Zuko and Jake have different relationships with their siblings. They’re both the less talented sibling at something that’s important to them, but their place in the birth order informs how that affects them. Zuko is older, with a baby sister that surpasses him. So he’s jealous about it. He’s bitter and envious and spends years trying to prove himself. Jake, on the other hand, starts off idolizing Tom, the big brother he wants to be just like. It makes so much sense, from this perspective, that by the end, Zuko has let go of his anger and is in a place where it’s possible to repair his relationship with his sister, while Jake’s family has completely fallen apart.

ATLA is a story about hope, peace, redemption, friendship. Through Zuko, we see someone misguided and confused finding his way. He stands up for himself to his father. He decides that he doesn’t like the path he’s on and changes direction. He learns to appreciate and understand Iroh’s love for him. He chooses his family. Even though doing so means he has to go against everything he’s ever known, he does it, choosing to fight with Aang against his own family. And at the end, even after that, there’s recognition of the fact that Azula may not be nice, she may not have learned the same lessons Zuko did, but she still grew up in the same abusive environment he did and deserves a chance to redeem herself. She didn’t, in the show, but she also didn’t die. Azula didn’t die. And where there’s life, there’s hope.

Animorphs is a story about the horrors of war. It’s about how utterly unfair it is – there isn’t any vengeance. Not really. The story ended with Rachel dead and Tom dead and everyone traumatized. Visser Three lived. Most of the Yeerks that enslaved innocent people weren’t punished. The people that were hurt throughout the series were largely the innocents. By the time he joined the Gaang, Zuko was prepared for the deaths of his brother and sister. He’d come to believe it was necessary because they were hurting people. That wasn’t what Jake  had to face at all – he had to send his cousin to kill his brother, even though it wasn’t his brother hurting people. Tom was an innocent that Jake had spent years refusing to give up on. The story didn’t have a happy ending – it wasn’t all tragedy, but it was still a whole lot of pain.

I used to consider the ending in ATLA to be a little bit of a cop out, what with the energy bending solution coming out of nowhere, seemingly just so Aang could get out of killing Ozai without future consequences. And I still kind of do, primarily because of how influential Animorphs was to how I interpret fiction. But I also think it fits with the rest of the story.

I’m a big believer in earned endings, happy or otherwise. I would have liked more setup to the “take away his bending” outcome than we got, but I’m not actually mad about how ATLA ended. If anything, giving it the tragic ending Animorphs got would be a departure from the positive themes the show was rooted in.


ATLA and Animorphs are completely different stories. They pretty much only have two things in common: they were targeted at children, and they are fantastic. Children’s fiction often gets dismissed because of the target audience. But when handled with care by people who respect children and their intelligence, it can be excellent. Any good children’s work matures as it progresses, matures as the characters and audience alike develop, allowing people of different ages and experiences to get something different out of it. ATLA and Animorphs do just that. As such, everyone – of all ages – should watch ATLA and read Animorphs. Regardless of what specifically you get out of it, they’re both worth the time.

Adapting ‘Animorphs’

As anyone that has ever read anything I’ve written knows…I love Animorphs. And as anyone that knows anything about the Animorphs fandom knows, mocking the TV series is a time honoured tradition. That being said, the fandom is often discussing how great it would be to get a reboot, and there’s long been a debate as to the best way of adapting the series.

There are frequent claims that it should involve aging up the characters a few years. There are practical reasons for that – the entire series revolved around these six kids, and it’s a  safer bet that you’ll get a good performance out of slightly older actors. And “gritty reboots” are all but inevitable. But Animorphs would lose so much of what makes it awesome if there were changes made to appeal to adults. Aging the characters, adding sex or excessive cursing – all that would take away from the fact that this is a story about child soldiers. At the same time, if there was a completely faithful live action adaptation – for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s make it a movie – it would have to be rated R. Loss of limbs is just par for the course. The very first book essentially opens with involuntary cannibalism – an alien is eaten alive by his enslaved former mentor while five children hear him scream. At one point, a different alien is cut in two and, driven by uncontrollable hunger, one half starts to consume the other. There’s a reason fans frequently laugh about how weird it was that this series was approved for children.

And it is supposed to be for kids. Not just for kids, certainly, but what would it mean to take a series about kids and written for kids and fill it with so much blood and gore that, even if it’s accurate to the books, would stop the people in the demographic it’s for from getting to see it? Stories for adults are great. Movies that you probably shouldn’t take kids to are excellent. But even though the majority of today’s Animorphs fans are adults, it’s not fair to make an adaptation of it an adult one that kids can’t go to, because kids really deserve a chance to discover this world. Kids deserve great stories with nuanced and interesting characters, moral questions, action, and humour just as much as adults do. And nothing directed at children – hell, and few things directed at adults – combines all those things as well as Animorphs.

Even aside from the content, there’s a lot of disagreement as to what the best way to format an adaption would be. Some people want a series of movies, others say that that won’t capture the sense of a lot of time passing the same way the books did and want a show, yet others want it to be a cartoon (Applegate herself has said that when the original show was being made, she and Michael Grant, her husband and coauthor, had wanted it animated). Personally, I’m conflicted. I’m doubtful that a cartoon could properly capture the feel of the series, but I suspect that would be the only way to actually adapt it, because anything live action would be extremely expensive and likely inaccessible to the target audience of the books because of the sheer amount of violence. Both a live action TV series and live action films have similar positives and negatives.

While there are certainly filler books that, even if they do have interesting character moments or add something of value, aren’t strictly necessary, I’d argue that the majority of them contribute to elevating the work as a whole, especially as they help give the impression of a series that’s taking place over a long time and in which we don’t see everything that the characters do. In that regard, a TV show would be a great format. However, I suspect that if there was a reboot of the show, there would likely be a lot of filler in an attempt to drag out the story for more seasons. The interpersonal drama would shift from being about different philosophies as to how they should fight a war to more trite relationship drama and petty jealousies, things that really weren’t in the books at all.

On the other end of the  spectrum, a single movie wouldn’t do the series justice, because of just how much there is. I’ve said before that I’d love for a movie to be directed by Zack Snyder, largely because I’d love for him to direct anything and I think that, while the main series is more suited for an episodic series, the Chronicles would need movies to do them justice, and I also think Guillermo del Toro would be a perfect fit for the type of work Animorphs is. But would be extremely expensive to do right, and a faithful adaptation would be extremely difficult.

None of this even gets into the fact that all the books are told in first person, with a lot of the appeal being the characters’ internal narration – something that doesn’t translate very well from text. Of course, all of this is entirely hypothetical, seeing as there’s been no indication of any Animorphs adaptation plans. But I kind of really want to see one done justice, because it would be hard to overstate how crucial Animorphs was to me. They set the bar for character development. They’re the reason my reaction to so many characters arcs is, “this is good, but it’s no Jake from Animorphs”. Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan won a Newbery Medal. It’s getting an animated movie with an a majorly all-star cast. That’s all well and good, but I will always maintain that her best work was Animorphs. I need that adaptation, good or bad, if only because it will inevitably result in more people being introduced to the books.

My 10 Favourite ‘Animorphs’ Books

Between the 54 main storyline books, 4 chronicles, 4 Megamorphs, and the two stupid “choose your own adventure” books where I think just about every choice ended up in you dying, Animorphs had a lot of books. Everyone that has ever spoken to me for more than five minutes probably knows that I love the seriesI often pick one up for a reread because they’re so short you can get through one in like twenty minutes and they make me feel a lot of things in a short amount of time. Picking favourites is all but impossible because there are so many awesome things about nearly all of them. So I made this list by thinking of which ones come to mind when I’m trying to describe why I love the series.

10.  The Reaction (12)

The book that spawned the “Cassie loves hard rock” meme. Also, my personal favourite of the stupid plot books. What’s not to love about a morphing allergy and uncontrollable morphing triggered by Rachel’s anger issues while they try to prevent some teen actor with, as Tobias put it, “Yasmine Bleeth power” from being infested?

This is by far the lightest book on this list and one of the lightest in the whole series. It’s just funny with very few heavy or serious moments, and it always makes me laugh, just because of how rare books like that are in this series. Friendship, hijinks, Xena jokes, Rachel starting to turn into a bear and passing it off as new boots, Rachel turning into an elephant and falling through her house, Marco as a llama, Cassie attacking a crocodile while in squirrel morph, Cassie morphing Rachel, and talk show hosts freaking out.

Note: Cassie being a bad liar that can’t think of anything to say is usually played for laughs, but here, when the word Andalite was barked at her to see if she’d react, she just agreed that “and a light” would be helpful and  kept walking. She claimed she had a hard time controlling Rachel’s morph and that Rachel’s brain kept trying to make her do dumb things, but maybe Rachel’s instincts also helped her lie better?

This book was a zany adventure that’s far closer to the usual use of the Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World trope than the rest of the series. While nearly every book has lighthearted, funny moments, entire plots that are light don’t happen often, making this one hugely refreshing and a nice reprieve from all the darkness.

9. The Pretender (23)

Toby’s intro! Well, not really. That wouldn’t make sense. Her real intro was at the end of Hork-Bajir Chronicles, but seeing as between that book and this one she wasn’t so much as mentioned once, this was where we got to see her as a character for the first time. That automatically gives this book bonus points, because Toby Hamee is freaking awesome. Even more bonus points because it’s a Tobias book, and he has fewer from his perspective than most of the others.

The story goes between trying to rescue a Hork-Bajir child that wandered off, a supposed long lost cousin of Tobias, and his upcoming birthday on which he’ll be read a letter from his father. All the while, Tobias is dealing with the fact that being a hawk is tough. It’s quite an eventful book for him. He uses the fact that he’s forgotten how to emote as a superpower while sitting in a room with someone he knows is Visser Three in morph and learns that Elfangor was his father, and that’s after a whole book of him having a really bad three days.

Lots of action, angst, good fight scenes, and Hork-Bajir. Basically, classic Animorphs.

8. Visser

This wasn’t labelled as one of the Chronicles, even though it essentially was one of them, and I can see why – while the rest of the Chronicles told stories about the past, about how the universe reached the place it was when book 1 (The Invasion) began, this one is told in the present and through flashbacks.

This book provided a lot of insight into the Yeerk Empire and its internal politics. Very cool. It was primarily about Edriss, her past, and her present chess game with Esplin, and all that was great, but what I was struck by more than anything was how badass Marco’s  mom is. Eva was fascinating in this book, because this basically the first time we got to see her.  Not her as filtered through the perception of her son’s memories from when he was eleven. Not her as a helpless little host that needs to be saved. Her as a woman with her own mind and thoughts, her as a smart, competent, experienced individual, her as the other side of the same coin as Edriss. And she’s awesome. 

In an earlier book, we see Chapman, who’s also spent years as a Controller. But where Chapman didn’t resist for his daughter’s sake, stopped paying attention to what was happening to the point where he had forgotten how to control his body when he had his head back, Eva kept fighting. She didn’t need time to figure out how to use her mouth and limbs again, she had control of her body again and immediately started thinking about what she had to do, what the smart thing to do was. This woman sacrificed everything – body and mind and freedom – for the sake of the planet, because she knew her freedom would come at a cost. Eva is the hero of another story.

7. The Attack (26)

Awwww, Jake defeated the Howlers with the power of love. But more than that – he looked at two nigh omnipotent beings and made them blink. You know how the whole series is about child soldiers? This book was about child soldiers coming to face with other child soldiers and deciding that they cannot kill children that don’t comprehend that the killing isn’t a game.

We see Erek again, which is nice. There’s a lot of questioning what it means to be an android that’s barred from violence and the true limitations of that. It’s not the focus – the Chee are minor characters – but it is there. Foreshadowing for later? Probably not intentionally, but interesting all the same. The characters meet the Iskoort, two species – the Isk and the Yoort – in a symbiotic relationship where neither can exist without the other, showing what the Yeerks could be at some point. It never came up again, but still, cool.

It’s a good character piece. Plotwise, it’s not really relevant, seeing as it’s pretty much a one off that doesn’t get referenced at all later, but it’s excellently written, delves into the  same kind of ethical dilemmas and such that Animorphs at its best always does, and has some great moments between the characters.

6. The Solution (22)

Also could be called: Nothing Brings A Team Together Like Plotting The Destruction Of The New Member.

The best written Rachel book, by far. Lots of heavy stuff, but they also ran into a drunk, pantsless G8 leader who I think saluted them while grinning wildly? (There was a recent debate on Tumblr over whether that was supposed to be Boris Yeltsin or Vladmir Putin. Help us out, KAA). Back on topic!

Animorphs is, for the most part, highly episodic. There’s an ongoing story, and everyone has a pretty consistent character arc throughout the series, but most of the books are written in a way that you could pick one up, starting in the middle of the series, and be pretty okay. Those loosely connected books are good. Some of them, put into context, though? Where specific plot points from one come up later, or the ones that carry out a tightly woven mini-arc, like the David Trilogy? Those are almost always great.

What’s interesting about this book is that it showed the team aspects of the Animorphs better than anything else. It’s not just Rachel getting a moment where she stands alone. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the darkest book – how do you decide on that in a series that’s this dark overall? For heaven’s sake, the first one opened with an alien being eaten alive and a bunch of children crying as they listened to his screams – but I’d argue that it’s their darkest hour as a team, the first book where they’re really pushed to their limits together.

This book is messed up. If book 6 was the first time they’d ever come up with a plan, executed it, and wound up winning with no element of luck involved, just them and their skill, this is the dark side of that book. They come up with a plan. They execute it successfully. But it shows off the scary sides of all the Animorphs. Cassie’s sense of empathy and ability to manipulate people. Jake’s ability to make the hard choices. And above all, Rachel’s growing violence and ability to complete the plans others formulate.

Book 6 was hardly light and breezy. Jake spent the entire book trapped inside his own head. Cassie came up with the idea that they needed to send Ax to impersonate him for his parents. They dragged a sentient creature into the woods and starved him to death. But he was enslaving Jake at the time, we could see that he was indubitably a bad guy, and this was long before they met Aftran and started to see the Yeerks as people, so it felt justified. David is not a sympathetic character. He completely disregards Cassie and Tobias. But he’s still just a kid the same age as the protagonists that didn’t ask for any of this to happen.

Cassie’s potential to be the most dangerous Animorph was clearly illustrated through the fact that it was her plan to trap David as a rat. She wrote the script, anticipated every one of David’s moves, and successfully trapped him, because she didn’t want to kill him. Damn. Just three books before this, we saw the positive side of Cassie’s empathy – she convinced Aftran that enslaving Karen so she herself could be free was wrong. Here? She used that empathy to figure out every move David would make and how to beat him – trapping him as a rat and leaving him alone on an uninhabited island.

Jake’s major strength is his ability to adapt. And yes, that as at least partially innate, but it was honed by experience and, I’d argue, perfected here. David strengthened him and made him capable of the kind of things he does later in the series. In the book immediately preceding this one, Jake outright admits that David is an unknown. He spends the book trying to figure out what makes him tick, whereas he knows the others so well he doesn’t even need to think. He can make those decisions on how to use them, on what they’ll probably do, on autopilot. But David? Jake didn’t know how to handle him, handle people that are only nominally on his side that he neither likes nor trusts, or even people that he wasn’t sure would listen to him. The events of this book made him capable of dealing with Mean Rachel and Nice Rachel in 32, the Andalites in 38, the Auxiliary Animorphs in 50. The way he used Rachel in this book is why he was later capable of manipulating Tobias into volunteering to be captured and tortured in 33, why he could figure out every move Tom’s Yeerk would make in 53 and 54.

Of course, this was Rachel’s book, not theirs, and it showed off so much of how she’d changed throughout the series. Unlike many, though, I don’t think it’s how she stood watch for the necessary two hours that did that. Sure, maybe it’s not something Cassie would have been able to do, but it’s not that Rachel wanted to do it. She had a choice between that and killing him. And Ax was right there with her, even more emotionally detached from it than her. It’s how in the rest of the book, she veered into straight up sadistic, threatening David’s family while holding a fork to his ear, wanting to cause him pain, becoming just about the only fourteen (probably, somewhere around that age) year old girl capable of making a plastic utensil terrifying. She’s the one Jake wants by his side at a fight, that he automatically calls for without having to think. Everything with David made it dawn on her that her bloodthirstiness was actually scary.

(I love this book so much that I rambled on about it forever and had to cut out half of the points I made.)

5. The Sickness (29)

Cassie does awesome on her own, and this was a clear demonstration of why. This book follows 19, another amazing Cassie book, by bringing back Aftran. In this one, she morphs a Yeerk, visits the Yeerk Pool by herself, rescues Aftran, and gets home in time to figure out how to perform brain surgery on Ax, her other alien friend, in her barn with nothing but a hole saw and scalpel. Relatively low angst, lots of funny scenes, some cute ones, but mainly just Cassie, doing her thing and being awesome while her team is all down with the flu.

Cassie Middle-Name-Unknown, a high school student brave enough to go down to rescue a friend from a place that gives her nightmares and cut open another friend’s head, but not enough to not need her best friend/boyfriend’s cousin to tell him he’s taking her to a dance. I love her. Come on, Cassie. He literally stopped the Howlers by giving them the memory of kissing you three books ago. Pull yourself together.

4. The Departure (19)

This book celebrated hope. It celebrated optimism. There was some clumsy writing, what with the random bear and leopard serving as plot devices to herd the characters where Applegate wanted them and Cassie behaving uncharacteristically stupidly in a way that I’d need another post to analyze, but I love it anyway. There are a lot of books, shows, and movies that glorify the cynical characters or the “badass” ones that do the ruthless, necessary thing or stuff like that, but that’s not what Cassie is about, and it’s certainly not what this book is about.

This is about choices and sacrifice, about standing up against evil being hard, about not standing up being morally reprehensible. It’s about how not everyone in the empire the protagonists fight against is evil. It’s about trust. It’s about how it’s unfair that the Yeerks were born slugs, without sight or hearing, unable to see how beautiful the world is, but how it’s not right for them to enslave others to have it. It’s about peace. Not between all humans and all Yeerks and all Andalites, but between Cassie and Aftran. One human and one Yeerk.

Cassie’s morals are impossible to separate from her as a character. She jealously, maybe even selfishly, guarded her own soul and her principles, because she couldn’t live with not being able to look herself in the mirror, and that’s why she survived. She was determined to stay who she was. She fought to hold onto her sense of right and wrong, which was why she could move on with her life after. This book was beautifully written, with amazingly poignant quotes, and an amazing way of forcing the reader to empathize.

3. The Beginning (54)

Controversial opinion? Maybe. But I love this book. Sure, maybe it wasn’t what most people wanted. But it was what I needed. It wasn’t a happy ending. It wasn’t all miserable, either. It was bittersweet and dedicated to the aftermath, to hammering in the point that the lead characters had become child soldiers that sacrificed their souls for humanity, because there’s no such thing as a glorious war or a just war, but there may be a such thing as a necessary one.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a children’s book that demonstrates the effects of war as well as this one. Jake had absolutely no idea what to do with his life for most of it. He spent a year clinically depressed and not talking to a therapist or any of his friends. He barely left his house except to sometimes visit Rachel’s grave, and he didn’t even talk to her. After that, when he started making an attempt to move on, it was by floating through life until someone gave him another mission. Marco got the fame and fortune he’d craved, but it was hollow and as good as he was at pretending otherwise, he was bored out of his mind and jumped at the chance to go into space and rescue Ax. Tobias became a recluse. Ax mostly just…found other stuff to fight so he could avoid trying to get on with his life. Cassie alone managed to move on.

There really aren’t many books out there were a significant chunk of is it about the war crimes trial a year after the end of the war, during which the defence attempts to discredit the lead character by accusing him of being a war criminal himself, so when you read one, it sticks with you. Animorphs, everybody. For kids!

2. Hork-Bajir Chronicles

Animorphs is in general a story about war and imperialism, and this book showed that off like whoa. There was a cast of great characters:

  • Alloran, my trashbag fave! He’s pretty much my favourite character outside the mains, partially due to him being a pretty terrible person.
  •  Seerow, the closest thing that this series has to an unambiguous good guy! Except no, not really, because his was a very Woodrow Wilson style of idealism and liberalism – that is to say, hugely racist. Wilson believed in self determination as it extends to white people. Seerow believed in the intelligence of the Yeerks, that they deserved to see the stars, but not in that of the Hork-Bajir. Aldrea told him how Dak was brilliant and had rapidly learned just about everything she had to teach. He flat out didn’t believe her,  because how could that possibly be?
  • Aldrea, who was all for getting the Hork-Bajir to fight the Yeerks and trying to manipulate Dak even as she started to like him, then noped the hell out of there as soon as she found out about the biological warfare stuff.
  •  Dak Hamee, who mastered the art of calling out Andalites way before Jake, smart and kind and forced to fight.
  • Esplin from before he infested Alloran and was still a cunning villain because of not growing kind of crazy from the power. Man, they really shouldn’t have promoted him, he was really good at his old job.

Plots are all well and good, but they’re nothing without solid characters to drive it, and these? Amazing.

1. The Answer (53)

You can argue that the entire series culminated in this book. If 54 was about the aftermath, this was the book where all the pieces that have been building since the beginning came together for the sake of this one thing.

It’s a complex plan filled with various forces, some of which are teeth gritting their way through their alliance. The Animorphs are only reluctantly working with Tom, and that falls apart almost immediately. They used the Auxiliary Animorphs and the military as a distraction. The Hork-Bajir and Taxxons were holding position down to the last person. Jake had to threaten to kill Chapman in order to force Erek to help. Esplin doesn’t surrender until the next book. Tom and Rachel aren’t dead yet. But the war was effectively won here.

There are a lot of fans that see Jake as a boring everyman. I’m pretty sure Marco is the most common favourite character, and something I used to see quite often (but not so much anymore) is people saying he’d be a better leader. I disagree for a lot of reasons, and it would take a whole post of its own to explain why, but this book was the best example of Jake at his most brilliant and most terrifying.

Jake was as a ruthless as a character can get, because now they’re in all out war and for the first time, he actually saw a way to win, one that involved a whole lot of sacrifice. He was emotionally distant for most of this book. Very early on, he says that he’s had to give up soul searching because there’s no time left for that, and he does. He has a brief moment of feeling amazing at the prospect of victory when Arbron says they want to help, but aside from that, this book is a sombre one about him using his people as chess pieces. He’s detached, numb, and only focused on the goal until near the end, when it seems to register just what he’s doing.

Ordering Rachel to go after Tom made sense. He was stopping Tom’s nameless Yeerk from getting away and enslaving some other species – and how crazy is it that this guy, this villain we loathe so much, at times even more than Esplin, never got a name? Through the whole series we call him Tom, and while at times I found that frustrating, it serves a very important purpose that pays off here. Jake doesn’t know the Yeerk’s name. He can’t separate the Yeerk from his brother. It’s not just the Yeerk that dies. It’s Tom himself. It’s the conclusion to the series long Cain and Abel theme, and the reason that even now, in 2018, thinking about Jake Berenson still makes me want to cry.


The plot of the series is not complex. But the depth of the characters and the way in which the books deconstruct so many tropes is outstanding.