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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The Importance Of Dreamer To ‘The Gifted’

I saw a post on Tumblr a while back by someone discussing The Gifted and why Dreamer matters. He identified it as something I hadn’t considered before but immediately recognized as true: Sonya was the heart of the mutant underground. You might think that’s weird at first. After all, she was the one doing whatever she had to and using her powers in ethically dubious ways. But it’s undeniably out of love. More than that – it’s out of faith.

To save the others, she gave Clarice her memory and feelings for John. She was the first non-lead character to agree to help stage a rescue and break Lorna out of custody, even though she was the only one whose powers wouldn’t help keep her safe. She reassured John that she believed in their mission and its importance when he was worrying about how they were losing ground. The second Lorna asked her to go find Marcos, she agreed. When Clarice asked her for help, she went with her immediately. Her impulse being to protect mutant children before herself meant that she let herself get caught by the Sentinel Services to buy Lauren and Andy some more time. Out of belief in the importance of mutant safety, she told them not to demonstrate their powers for Campbell. Sonya cared for individuals, but what’s more important than that is how she cared for mutantkind. She’s flawed. Not all of her decisions were good ones. But she was trying, and that leads to a character with a huge amount of potential.

Sonya was arguably more decisive than any of the other main characters. John is concerned with ethics, while Sonya cared more for the morality – a shifting,  changing idea. While John debates what he has to do unless circumstances are actively pushing him towards making a decision, Sonya just acted. And in doing so, she reminded John and Lorna both of what’s important in different ways. With John, she did it by doing what he wouldn’t. Lorna, by telling her what she shouldn’t do.

Despite not being a main character, Sonya was a core member of the underground. Everyone there trusted her. It’s more than just being present. She was the one John called to figure out how to get them to safety, despite the fact her powers were probably the least conducive to directly solving the problem at hand. Because on a subconscious level, John trusted Sonya to find an answer just that much.

Sonya believed in the mutant underground. She believed that her actions had weight, that what she did mattered. She believed that there were things more important than herself or any individual person. And when she gave Clarice her memory, she did so because she recognized the simple fact that she did have a choice – a Hobson’s one. It was do it or let the others die. A huge part of Sonya’s importance to the underground was her ability to see all those things and act on them. She didn’t hesitate. She knew who she was and what was necessary.

She did morally questionable things out of love. She felt guilt about it – when Turner told her that it was personal and he wanted to see her suffer, she was clearly horrified at the impact of her use of powers. She never wanted to hurt anyone. She’s more opposed to violence than any of the others, including Thunderbird, Blink, and Eclipse. She was upset when Lorna punched the guy in the bar, even though he’d been talking about the enjoyment he got from abusing mutants. That would have made her angry, too, but even so, she never thought of hurting him. She didn’t hurt or kill the guard that encountered them in the power station, when she could have easily done so. Instead, she made him throw his gun in the trash and let them pass.

Lorna is the drive, the rage, the sense of purpose. Her actions stem from passionate feelings about protecting mutants. In contrast to her, John and Marcos are different aspects of the logic, John through the way he perceives the world as “this is right and that is wrong and it doesn’t matter if doing this right thing will result in a future bad thing, because we can’t do the wrong thing”. Marcos through his perception that action will make things worse. Sonya, though, she’s somewhere in the middle, and that mix of ethics and necessity, passion and reason, is what makes her the heart.

Caitlin is frequently pushed as the heart of the show through her role as team mom. But it’s not the same at all. Caitlin is an outsider lecturing the underground. Sonya was one of them, and she chose to stay, unlike Caitlin being cornered into it. Sonya could have gotten out of there before the whole mess with the Struckers left them trapped, but she didn’t, because she wanted to help others.

We don’t know much about Sonya’s circumstances, but everything we do and can observe tells us that she was living a pretty comfortable life. She had enough time to volunteer, and the extent to which the things the women there had been through stuck with her suggests she’d never experienced anything remotely like that. She said she joined the mutant underground as a refugee and decided to stay, and at her funeral, Polaris said she could have disguised herself amongst humans forever, but chose to stay with them. The combination of these things suggests that she figured it would be safer to skip town and went to stay with the mutant underground on her own terms, not because she was forced to. It seems like she intended to move on, but realized that they needed help and stayed.

This is backed up by the costuming choices. Her clothes and hair were always noticeable more elaborate than anyone else’s. When episode 10 aired, I had a Twitter exchange with someone about the jacket she was wearing to go break into that facility. We  were laughing a bit, because it was a nice jacket but it was also such a statement piece and it seemed so out of place for the task at hand. The hair can be dismissed as her having a bit more time than the others because she doesn’t have an offensive power, but not the clothes. Her wardrobe being so extensive and elaborate indicates that, not only did she probably have a decent income, she didn’t leave in a hurry. She had time to pack. That means there was no one after her, that she could have gone anywhere she wanted. But she still chose to join the mutant underground to help people.

Caitlin and Sonya both came from a fairly privileged background, even if it’s more implicit with Sonya. But Sonya was a mutant,  whereas Caitlin is just a parent to mutants. And that provides a much different context for their actions. Caitlin didn’t care about mutant issues until it started to affect her – she didn’t care that her brother worked for Senator Montez, that her son referred to mutants as “muties”, she didn’t care about all the issues mutants were facing. Not until Andy manifested and they had to get out of there. Sonya’s sense of responsibility towards others was a much more genuine thing.

When she took away memories from those women in the shelter she volunteered at, that was risking outing herself as a mutant. But she decided that there were some things more important than her and her personal safety. The needs of the many, after all. You see the other side of that idea when it comes to how she argued that it made more sense to move Clarice when she lost control of her powers than to evacuate headquarters. Yeah, she cared about people and preventing strangers from coming to harm…but when she had to make a choice between one and many, she’ll choose the many. Especially because she saw the members of the mutant underground as her family. Clarice was still an outsider. Sonya might have wanted to help her…but not at the expense of everyone else there. Not at the expense of people she knew and loved. Sonya was willing to risk herself to help someone. But she didn’t want to ask that of anyone else. A little selfish? Maybe. But her heart was ultimately in the right place.

There were so many ways she could have been used. I don’t think her story was over. I don’t think her death really served any purpose. To an extent, I think that was kind of the point. She was killed for no reason at all. It was unfair and unjust, it was a white man murdering a woman because she was standing in the way of him getting what he wanted. Death isn’t fair. Not all deaths are going to be satisfying, like something has just been completed. Some will just be tragic and brutal and leave an entire life unlived. But you know where we already saw that? With characters like Pulse and Chloe, the Hounds that died just because. We don’t need more examples of that, we need deaths that matter and feel earned.

I’m going to miss Sonya so much going forward. I’m probably always going to be a little bitter about her death. I’m not going to stop watching the show because as much as I sometimes complain about it, I still think that it has more positives than negatives, and I don’t think there’s a show in the world where I’ve always liked the writing. Sonya may have been treated poorly throughout, but that’s really not the case with the other characters. Besides, if I stopped consuming a bit of media every time I didn’t like how it handled a character, I’d only have about three things that I could read or watch. And there are plenty of ways to handle the issue in the future:

  1. Bringing her back. Her death was unnecessary, and she could contribute far more to the show alive. She had a lot of unrealized potential, especially when you consider how much she acted as the link in the chain in the underground.You could make a case that John connected all the members, and that’s certainly true, but I think Sonya did so just as much. She was Lorna’s best friend and John’s girlfriend. The character that had most of the meaningful interaction with Clarice. Clearly close with Marcos, given that he spoke at her makeshift funeral.
  2. Obviously by not letting Dreamer become a Forgotten Fallen Friend, and acknowledging that something is missing, that losing her changed them all and played a role in their decisions. The team fractured after Sonya, and while that was about a lot of things, and the writers brushed her off and made the Cuckoos the takeaway of the episode featuring her death, Sonya’s absence was one of the major reasons why the last couple episodes felt so different.
    1. Using her as a sort of point of contention between Lorna and John. John could point out that Sonya wouldn’t want this. I can imagine Lorna retaliating by telling him not to tell her what Sonya would want, questioning how much he’d ever loved her if he was saying Lorna shouldn’t retaliate against the people that had killed her, pointing out that she’d been dead for a day before he’d moved on with Clarice. He could respond by pointing out that she allied herself with Esme, who was indirectly responsible for getting Sonya killed. And so on.Aside from their debate as to what Sonya would feel about the division between them, I can imagine Lorna perceiving John as disrespecting Sonya’s memory with how quickly he began a relationship with Clarice. Supposedly, the entirety of season one took place over eighteen days, part of which Lorna was in prison. Lorna knows Clarice even less than the others, even if she called her a friend in the finale. They had precisely one scene that was just the two of them.

      It would be kind of crazy if Lorna didn’t feel defensive on Dreamer’s behalf after seeing John so easily get past her death without even a discussion about it. It won’t be about Clarice, really – it would be about the history between Lorna, John, and Sonya. It would only tangentially pertain to Clarice. Lorna likes her, Lorna considers her a friend, but at the end of the day, Lorna’s only known her for a couple weeks as opposed to however long she knew Sonya. In Lorna’s eyes, looking at John and Clarice’s relationship, Clarice would be the other woman. Even if season two shows John mourning Sonya, that won’t change the fact that he and Clarice kissed pretty much as soon as Sonya was out of the picture.

      We don’t know why John originally fell for Sonya or any of the details of what happened between them. We just have the gist of their history, and can logically conclude that Sonya loved him more than he ever loved her. It makes sense to me that Lorna would bristle at that.

    2. Mentioning her when they meet the Morlocks. Yeah, it wouldn’t make sense to have her having been one of them once, but some of their members could easily be people she helped out when she was working at that shelter. It would be a nice mythology gag to bring up her connection to the Morlocks.
  3.  Placing more emphasis on the similar traits Marcos has. Not trying to replace her, of course, because that wouldn’t work, but instead having it done intentionally in universe – him recognizing her role on the team and making an effort at filling it, because he’s closer to that than anyone else. More emotional than John. More reasoning than Lorna.

Unfortunately, I doubt any of these are likely. The writers don’t seem to care as much about her as I – and many other viewers that I’ve seen comment – do. From not giving her a character arc, to inconsistency in her writing, to considering her a way to add drama to other characters’ storylines rather than as something with its own value, they’ve demonstrated that to them, she was more a tool that they don’t need anymore than a character. I think that’s a mistake.

Lorna may be the emotional core of the show, the driving force that moves the story along. The Struckers may be the supposed lead characters with the most attention given to them in terms of subplots. But Sonya guided them and provided something that helped hold them together. It’s not easy to articulate just what that something was, but it’s best described as balance. She was the team’s heart. She kept the show centred. And it won’t be the same without her.

The Problem With Our Urge To Declare Any Representation Groundbreaking

“This movie is the first [insert overly narrow category] film. This is so important! Everyone go watch it!” People say things like that all the time. Not just about movies, even – about TV shows, about characters, about directors. We see it with which superheroes are brought to screen, we see it with who’s cast in what big budget movie, we see it with who’s directing an upcoming blockbuster. Right now, we’re seeing it with most of the discussion around  Crazy Rich Asians. And I get it. I do. But I also think it’s getting a little much.

I’m not talking just about the idea that it’s silly to go watch a movie you don’t like the look of just for the sake of representation with no other reason. I’m talking about the concept of hailing a movie as revolutionary just based on the diversity of the cast. Because here’s the thing: If we’re gonna act like Crazy Rich Asians is some kind of pioneer for depicting rich Singaporeans, by the same logic, you can argue that the Harold and Kumar movies are some of the most important and groundbreaking movies in years. Does that sound right to you?

Now, I’m probably not even close to the best person to talk about said movies. I literally could not watch the second movie because the first one was just over the top crass, and I do not do well with toilet humour. But these movies are buddy comedies with Asian leads. They challenge the idea that “Asian” means East Asian and nothing else. They counter the model minority myth, while also not going with the idea that their Asian lead characters are poor, uneducated taxi drivers or convenience store owners. They helped both John Cho and Kal Penn, who were both largely unknown at the time, become much more widely recognizable, to the point where both actors credited them with helping them land other roles. They made actual points about something. From that perspective, they’re far more groundbreaking than movies like Crazy Rich Asians, which is a kind of creepy wealth fantasy.

I don’t think the Harold and Kumar movies are actually groundbreaking. To suggest they are seems ridiculous to me. While all of what I said above about them is true, none of that changes the fact that they weren’t good movies; they didn’t make much at the box office; and while they helped Cho and Penn’s careers, they didn’t clearly lead to more movies centring around Asian characters. My point is that you can make the case that practically anything is groundbreaking.

Crazy Rich Asians matters in that it’s a fun, lighthearted rom-com with a predominantly Asian cast. That’s not a movie we see often, and it’s great. But I get uncomfortable with how much is being read into it. On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people say a movie can’t be everything when people point out the lack of representation of Singapore’s ethnic minorities, and, yeah, that’s kind of the point. It’s just a story about a group of people that don’t often get stories made about them. We’re celebrating movies that are perfectly fine and that do something valuable in bringing more Asians and Asian Americans to screen, but do we really think that that in itself is something revolutionary? A step forward, sure. But hardly something that’ll ~change Hollywood forever. It’s a romantic comedy about rich people starring several known entities – Constance Wu, well acknowledged as the absolutely hilarious breakout star of Fresh Off The Boat; Michelle Yeoh, with her career going back decades and including roles in works ranging from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Star Trek: Discovery; Ken Jeong, long recognized for his comedic roles; and more. It’s not tackling and difficult issues. It’s just a safe topic featuring Asians instead of white people.

I’m all for light movies starring people of colour that don’t involve drama or political statements, because existing isn’t one of those. There’s no reason why Crazy Rich Asians has to be anything other than what it is, which is a feel good romance. But taking a stand and drawing attention to serious world issues is what makes something revolutionary. How groundbreaking can something be when it’s a safe story that, while starring minorities, is about people that aren’t marginalized in the context of the setting and has no bold stances? It’s an escapist story set in Singapore that’s targeted at Americans. It tries to apply the Western perspective of racism to an entirely different cultural context through a combination of erasing ethnic minorities, ignoring the enormous wealth disparity, and glossing over the awful treatment of migrant workers by pretending it doesn’t exist. There’s not really anything fundamentally wrong with the movie. But I’m not going to call it groundbreaking.

Stories have enormous power. Philadelphia opened people’s eyes to the reality of AIDS. It’s almost certain that Blackfish was part of the reason SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding orcas and end their theatrical shows. Victim‘s sympathetic depiction of a gay man in the early 1960s helped change attitudes and maybe even pave the way towards the decriminalization of homosexuality. Those are what I call revolutionary. They made a profound and obvious impact. Crazy Rich Asians does what it does, and that’s fine, but I think it’s silly to act like that’s a bold and courageous action.

I love Constance Wu, so, yeah, I’m going to go watch this movie. She’s made so many episodes of Fresh Off The Boat worth it, which puts her in the small, distinguished category of actors that can draw me to the theatre. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. It looks like a movie that I’ll have a good time watching. But revolutionary? Nah. That’s a word I’m going to hold in reserve for works that earn it.

Has Any Writer Of Young Adult Fiction Ever Gone To High School?

Years ago, I read a book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. It was okay. Maybe a little on the side of trying too hard at being clever and a bit gimmicky, but it was a pretty entertaining read. I recently – this morning – discovered there was a sequel (Sophomores and Other Oxymorons). Me being me, I had to read it (after rereading the first book as a refresher, of course). My only thought upon finishing was, huh. And now that I think about it, there are a whole lot of other YA books that evoke a similar reaction in me. The way I see it, there are two options here: 1) The authors of YA fiction and I had vastly different high school experiences, or 2) The authors of YA fiction are very much misremembering what high school is like.

Okay, so fine. I went to a small magnet high school that wasn’t particularly cliquey. It was instead filled with pretty smart, motivated kids that were all largely supportive of each other and made a lot of IB jokes. No sports teams. So maybe my experience wasn’t quite standard. But seriously? Are these real problems that any high schooler faces? For me, high school was a time when I dedicated an absurd amount of time to robotics, learned to play the bassoon, and stressed out a lot over everything under the sun. But my worries were more along the lines of I’m socially awkward help me and oh my god I have a lot of work and if I can’t do this and get good grades I’ll flunk out and have to live in a cardboard box. Seniors taking my lunch money was not one of my concerns at all.

Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is more in line with what I understand to be the high school experience than its predecessor. It’s less reliant on clichés like “jocks vs nerds” and a main character with a crush on someone he idealizes while knowing nothing about. But it’s also oddly heavy handed. It’s Scott learning a bunch of random lessons rather than things that actually fit together thematically. It felt like more a series of ideas piled together than a story. It covers practically everything from “piracy is bad” to “creationism should not be taught in classrooms” to “people that think they know everything after learning a little bit are annoying”. Things I agree with? Sure. But not much of an actual plot. It was cluttered and felt like it had way too much going on. Maybe it was somewhat intentional – after all, there was a line near the end about every event not being a thread in the plot of a novel. But seeing as it is a novel, I don’t think it really worked.

This book reminded me of why I’m really not into romantic subplots. Full on romantic novels may not be my thing, but at least there, the romance serves the story rather than potentially muddling it. Interestingly enough, that distinction between a romantic subplot and a romantic novel can be seen when comparing Sophomores and Other Oxymorons to its predecessor.

In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, the romantic element serves as a plot trigger. Scott wanted to get closer to Julia, so he joined the newspaper, stage crew, student council. It was because of this that he learned he liked to write, that he made friends with Wesley. Everything in the book felt related. By contrast, Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is a much messier and clumsier read. Scott’s character development from the first book means he doesn’t do as many stupid things in pursuit of Lee as he did with Julia, which is good follow through, but it also means that his spending a year trying to figure out how to ask her out was just another thing thrown into an overstuffed book. Again, probably intentional. But intentional or not, it didn’t really work for me.

I enjoyed Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie when I first read it. I thought it was a funny, entertaining read. Upon rereading it and reading the sequel, I still think it’s a decent enough story, despite its ridiculously dramatic interpretation of going to school. However, it’s also possible I only think that because it looks good in comparison to the sequel. Neither book is terrible. It’s an okay way to kill time. But if there’s another option…I’d recommend picking that one up instead.

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.

‘Arc Of A Scythe’: An Interesting Addition To The Speculative Fiction Genre

Dystopian fiction is generally taken as a deconstruction of the idea of a utopia, where the society is flawed on a fundamental level. Scythe takes a different approach and portrays the consequences of a genuine utopia – the world is at peace, humanity has conquered death, everyone is free to pursue whatever they choose to pursue. It’s not a dystopia, because from a perspective, it actually is pretty idyllic.

Because there’s no longer a natural lifespan for humans, someone has to keep the population under control to avoid overcrowding the planet. That someone is the Scythedom, an order of people known as scythes whose job is to kill people to prolong the existence of humanity. The book follows Rowan and Citra, who are chosen to be apprentices of Scythe Faraday, despite the fact neither of them really wants the job. Their exposure to the inner workings of the scythedom leads them to understand the darker side of their world.

The Thunderhead, a benevolent AI that runs the world, takes care of every citizen’s needs, resulting in people losing the drive to improve and doing things to try to stave off boredom than out of interest. Horrifyingly, this extends to the scythes: “gleaning”, as they call it, is supposed to be an honour and responsibility, a serious and important task handled with compassion, but younger generations of scythes start enjoying the power stemming from their position and seeing themselves as gods, killing huge numbers of people for the fun of it.

Pros

  • Interesting world building that avoids many of the most common tropes in the genre.
  • Engaging characters with clear motivations and different personalities.
  • Solid and entertaining plot.
  • Avoids sequelitis – Thunderhead manages to improve upon most of the flaws of the first book.

Cons

  • Rowan and Citra are both reasonably compelling characters, but they didn’t get much development until the sequel, world building taking precedence. Their romance was one of the weakest parts of the story. It felt unnecessary and a bit out of place, but fortunately, it was a minor enough aspect of the book that it didn’t detract too much from the rest.
  • The timeline didn’t seem to make much sense, especially in regards to Scythe Curie’s past – a shame, considering I found her to be the most interesting character.
  • Predictable plot twists.

Scythe is a refreshing take on a genre that’s been increasingly characterized as books that are all rehashes of the same thing – the YA speculative fiction genre. YA fiction includes a lot of great books, but it’s such a broad category that it also has a lot that’s not as well thought out or written. This could well just be my perception, but it seems that publishers think that YA readers are less inclined to be choosy about what they read than adult fiction readers and will instead be okay reading countless variations of the same book, published in rapid succession. That’s  not to say adult fiction doesn’t have trends – clearly it does. But for whatever reason – because a YA book can often go in and out of fashion faster than an adult one, maybe? – they’re much less obvious than in adult fiction. In Scythe, Neal Shusterman does a great job on trying new things instead of just relying on the expected archetypes for YA speculative fiction. Because of that alone, I’d recommend giving it a try. Everything else is just a bonus.

It’s not exactly what I would call great, but Scythe was good, entertaining read. Its sequel, Thunderhead, is even better, with more moral ambiguity and character development. Give them a read and see what you think!

What ‘Scrubs’ Can Teach Us About Storytelling and Humour

Remember Scrubs? That hospital show that ran for eight seasons? (I know. Don’t say it.) I loved that show. It was ridiculous and silly and it blended comedy and drama better than just about anything else I’ve ever seen, and the reason for that is how they let their moments breathe. The writers didn’t feel the need to immediately lighten the mood whenever they got serious. There were no hasty retreats away from the emotional topics.

The show is genuinely funny, in ways ranging from imagine spots to funny rants. It did genre and homage episodes long before Community built an entire show off of doing just that. It weaves humour within seriousness, or starts light, then gets more serious, but whichever way a given episode goes, the impact of a serious episode is never diminished by a misplaced joke at the end.

One of the characters that only showed up in one episode was Nick, a fellow intern and the golden boy. Smart, skilled, charming, all of that. And the episode was dedicated to breaking him down. Not in the kind of soap opera melodrama where there’s an endless parade of bad luck way, not in the “we have to get this guy out of the way so our lead character can be the best” way, but in the more understated, “life is hard and the medical field is brutal and sometimes there’s not going to be anything you can do to save that seven year old”. And that was the end of the episode – it didn’t end on a joke, it ended on Nick walking away from years of work and a job he was great at because he couldn’t keep going through that.

The episode that introduced Kevin Casey played his OCD for laughs, through gags like showing him needing to touch every object in a room when he entered or repeatedly signing his name, up until the very end of the episode, where we see him, hours after his last surgery, still scrubbing his hands raw. The other characters realize they can’t blame him for all their problems because he has more than his share of them and go home, leaving him alone, flicking the lights on and off all night.

Characters die or move away. The lead character is defined by how emotional he is and the intensity of his relationships with the people around him. It handles issues like industry sexism and doctors performing outdated medical procedures and thus endangering their patients. People have to try to figure out if a patient is genuinely in pain, or just trying to score drugs.

 

Even during the parts intended to be funny, Scrubs did something that I really wish more works did: made characters funny in different ways, rather than everyone just snarking at each other without much of a unique voice. Cox goes on long rants, JD has his imagine spots and weird thought process, and so on. They acknowledged it, too – it one episode, none of Carla’s jokes were landing, and Cox told her that everyone is funny in different ways in a long snarky rant:

The show had plenty of flaws. Some of the jokes have not aged well – there was a lot of  homophobia and transphobia, as well as some very uncomfortable race comments – and the flanderization of characters got exhausting after a while. The female characters weren’t handled nearly as well as they should have been. But Scrubs deserves to be remembered, because it’s not only one of the goofiest shows out there, it’s one of the most profoundly emotional comedies you’ll find. It shows that there are no limits on the types of comedy you can use, so long as you’re sincere when you go serious. Characters can use humour to avoid the serious, but the work itself shouldn’t. Yes, Scrubs had its share of jokes that just aren’t funny, like most comedies. Yes, there were a couple seasons in there that felt tedious. And yes, some of it is just over the top goofy, including occasional jokes made during serious scenes. But if you look past those issues, you’ll find a show that manages to seamlessly blend comedy and drama in a way that few other shows have managed.