‘Animorphs’ and the Difficulties of Adaptations

Several weeks ago now, Michael Grant, the co-author of Animorphs, Tweeted something intriguing. At that point, I did not have the time to talk about it, and it soon became overshadowed by lots of other stuff, but now we have actual news to talk about!

Grant’s initial Tweet indicated that progress is being made towards an Animorphs movie. As of several days ago now, we have actual confirmation that one is in the works. I am somewhat skeptical.

As everyone that knows me knows, Animorphs is kind of my favourite thing ever. So I would love nothing more than for there to finally be an adaptation. But rumours of an Animorphs movie are not new. At all. This has been rumoured for years. and nothing has ever come of it. Even though this is much more substantial and promising than all the other rumours – Grant and Applegate have acknowledged it, the producers have made a statement – I’ve been burned before. As you probably all know from my other posts, I’m a DC fan. As a DC fan, I can’t help but remember the Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl movies that we were told were in the works. I can’t help but remember the Flash movie that went through multiple directors, scripts, and release dates, but is still nowhere in sight. So I’m going to be unconvinced until we have actual evidence of a script/casting/filming. However, as skeptical as I am that this movie will come to fruition, I’m also way less cynical about the quality than pretty much everyone I’ve seen talking about this.

I saw one person argue something along the lines of, “did you learn nothing from the TV show and the botched Artemis Fowl movie”, and I think that’s a ridiculous stance to have. That’s the question you ask once they’ve actually done something. They have not. So to ask it now is basically making the argument that the problem with the TV show and the Artemis Fowl movie was that they made an adaptation, not how they made it. That is not true. The problem with Artemis Fowl being turned into a movie wasn’t that it was done. The problem with AniTV wasn’t that it was made. The problem is that these things were done without respect for what the stories they’re purportedly based on are about.

When I was younger, I absolutely loved Artemis Fowl. Because of that, I am absolutely certain a movie based on it could have been both excellent and accurate. The problem wasn’t the source material being too hard to adapt. They didn’t have a shortage of money – the budget was over a hundred million dollars! The problem was a complete lack of regard for what they were adapting. Creative changes are one thing. A movie where if you change the names, no one would have any idea what it was is another. Artemis Fowl is a story about a twelve year old villain protagonist doing bad things, making friends, and begrudgingly becoming a better person. Artemis Fowl the movie…well. I normally try to hold off on judgement until I watch something. But having seen the trailer, summaries, and reactions from people whose judgement I trust? It was none of those things the books were. That was entirely unnecessary. The people behind the Animorphs movie will very easily be able to get around this simply by caring about the content of the story.

The problem with the TV show is trickier because it was bad writing hindered further by just how many constraints they had that they didn’t know how to get around. Some of those constraints are inherent to the work, which I’ll get back to, but the bad writing absolutely is not, and nor are other constraints, like the shoestring budget. When making the show, they had one Hork-Bajir costume, had to replay the same stock footage of animals over and over again, and as I understand it couldn’t even afford to have all the cast in the same episode. Of course it wasn’t going to look great! There are ways to get around that, even if this movie has the same nonexistent budget. Definitely if there’s better writing involved.

Now. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Animorphs is an incredibly difficult work to adapt. But that’s not because of the budget or visual effects or any such thing, but because the only reason it can be the story it is is because it was a long running series of children’s books. The length of the series helped convey the passage of time that’s essential to the narrative. That they were children’s books made this violent story about war accessible to children in a way that a show that faithfully adapted all those elements would not be, and enabled the story to be focused on children, as the themes demanded. Ethical dilemmas and the horrors of war were the cornerstones of the series. Converting that to a visual medium is no easy task. Anyone making an Animorphs adaptation must face a choice – tone down the graphic violence and themes to present a somewhat sanitized story, stripped of its horror elements, that’s far less bluntly about war and ethics…or present what’s in the text and in doing so, create an adaptation that’s inaccessible to the target audience. Either option is pretty bad, and not just because doing the first would miss the point, and doing the second is unfair. They’re bad options because they wouldn’t work to get more people to watch it.

If you make a lighter, softer Animorphs story, that’s basically the TV show. And it would not work for anyone. Animorphs is very funny, but it works because the humour and horror/tragedy are allowed to breathe on their own, rather than constantly breaking the tension of serious moments with dumb jokes, and changing that would mean losing what makes the story unique. Existing fans would hate it. Adults wouldn’t be into it because when you lose the heavy thematic stuff, you have a show about kids for kids when adults prefer material about adults. Even kids probably wouldn’t be into it because it’s based on a series that really isn’t that culturally relevant and most kids in the target demographic today probably haven’t read it. When I was reading them, well after all the books had been released, they were ubiquitous in classrooms and libraries, but they were never in complete sets, it was hard to track them all down, and I never knew anyone else that read them. Now? I taught chess classes for a bit in March in a second grade classroom, and I never saw any Animorphs on their bookshelves. Makes me very skeptical that kids are still reading them. Therefore, in order to get kids interested, I’m thinking they’d need to do much more than lean on the “kids turning into animals” angle. That clearly wasn’t even working when I was younger, judging by how I never knew anyone else that read them. So no nostalgia factor, no slam dunk in terms of the hook, meaning the people behind it will have to make sure it’s actually a good and unique story. Lighter and softer is not that.

Similarly, if they were to decide, hey, kids these days don’t read these and so we need to target adults other than the nostalgic ones, let’s do that by making this a hard R horror, it wouldn’t actually work. To explain why, let me use the example of the Animorphology podcast that, despite my general disdain for podcasts, have been listening to since they first started. The host that did not read the books as a child talks quite frequently about how she wishes the adults in the story had a bigger role. When answering a listener question about how the series would be different if targeted at adults, she started talking about how the characters would be older and there’d be more romance and sex, before realizing that the question had been if the series were targeted at adults, not about adults. Then she made the case that it wouldn’t have been written for adults, because adults don’t often want to read books about children. So doing the typical gritty reboot – aging up characters until they’re high school or college age, adding gratuitous sex and cursing, leaning into the violence and gore would probably not appeal to adults, who can look it up and see that it’s based on a series of children’s books. An that’s on top of how it would lock out the audience that it’s meant for.

But none of this means it can’t be done, because fortunately, it’s not a binary choice. It’s a scale. There are ways around what makes it difficult. The movie can be scary and dark without making it rated R. Lean into the psychological horror of it – scary without gore, or at least, less gore. Show the aftermath of the violence, rather than Cassie ripping out someone’s throat with her teeth. It can very much be done. It will be enormously difficult. But it is possible. It just needs some creativity.

Another argument I’ve seen is that it has to be animated to work, and while that seems a more fair argument to me, I also don’t think that would solve any of the core issues of making an Animorphs movie/show. I don’t know enough about the industry to say this with any degree of certainty, but an animated adaptation seems likely to be just as expensive and even more time consuming than a live action one. It could theoretically look better than a live action one, but that’s certainly not a fact. There would be studio interference and pressure to tone it down there as well – probably even more so, because animation is so often targeted towards young children. Most importantly, animation would get caught up in what I argued earlier is the core dilemma of an Animorphs adaptation: faithfulness to the theme. So how exactly would animation be a better way to handle it?

Animation can be good. It can be beautiful. It can be powerful. But by necessity, it absolutely brings in a distance. By its very nature, it would be a somewhat sanitized version of the story, because an animated person losing a hand – the Animorphs cut off a lot of hands – is much less gruesome than a non-animated person. I’m sure an animated Animorphs adaptation would be good. But I’m not at all convinced it would be better than live action. In fact, I think my main reservation to a live action movie is…a movie, animated or otherwise, is not the best format for Animorphs. That is, for the core series.

As I’ve been saying for years now, I think the best possible way to handle this would be to make The Hork Bajir Chronicles and The Andalite Chronicles a two part movie series, and follow up with a TV show with the series if the movies are successful. Those two novels are the most self contained stories within the series, while also leading into each other and the main series. Given that it’s the main series that’s going to be adapted – judging by what the article breaking the news said about how the producers are excited to be bringing the Animorphs (as characters, not a series) alive for a new generation – there are just a few pitfalls they have to avoid, because as I’m saying, this is going to be hard for them.

  1. Aging up the characters for the sake of appealing to an older audience/avoiding having to make a story about child soldiers
  2. Toning down the dark themes
  3. Cramming too much into a single movie

If they do any of these things, they’ve already lost. There are other areas that probably aren’t automatic losses, but are dangerous enough to best be avoided, too – for example, updating the story from the nineties to present day is unlikely to make it more relatable or appealing and very likely to introduce many, many problems that would turn the story into a complete idiot plot where it’s entirely luck that keeps the good guys alive. And these are just the things the powers that be can control – they also have to find good child actors.

The Animorphs fandom is a little strange sometimes. We love these books, but we also often come across as embarrassed by them. We leap to talk about how the writing is simplistic or poorly paced or any number of such criticisms just to make it clear to whoever we’re talking to that we know they’re children’s books. And they are. But that in no way means that they’re bad. I don’t think the writing is all that simplistic, either. These are amazing books that we love for a reason, that are amazing even with so many things working against it – they came out at a pace of a book a month as a means to sell merchandise to children. They’re the epitome of trashy sci-fi, and they’re glorious. So while the movie might be terrible…here’s to holding out hope that it follows in the books’ footsteps and is awesome, instead.

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.

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.

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.

Animorphs: A Children’s Series That Deserves To Be Remembered As a Science Fiction Classic

Remember Animorphs? That super ridiculous nineties series about kids turning into animals fighting parasitic aliens that opened with a character being eaten alive and ended with most of the main characters dead that was somehow ubiquitous in just about every library, even if no library had all the books because there were more than sixty of them? Yeah. That was fantastic.

Something that’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things that I still love about it -it had some of the most creative aliens ever. There was no all aliens speak English – the universal standard was something else; aliens were equipped with translators so they could understand each other; and they learned English when they were on Earth, some better than others. They didn’t all look humanoid – in fact, none of them did. Giant, cannibalistic centipedes with insatiable and uncontrollable hunger. Seven foot tall herbivores that solely ate bark and were covered with blades so that they could better harvest it. Mouthless centaurs with two additional stalk eyes and scorpionlike blades on their tails. Parasitic slugs that lived in the heads of other sentient creatures and controlled their every action. They were all different and fascinating and some of them were absolutely terrifying.

Animorphs had all the basic hallmarks of a traditional science fiction story. Freshman year, I took a class on Eastern European sci fi, and it struck me just how well Animorphs adheres to the main tenants of the genre, while not being confined to standard in any way. What is the nature of good and evil? What is love? What is life? What does it mean to be human? The books questioned the nature of right and wrong again and again. The fierce protectiveness and love the main characters felt for each other was constantly brought up. One of the supporting characters was an android, and the constant undertone when he was around was if he was really alive, and if his pacifism was at all justifiable next to the actions of the living things doing the fighting. A running theme was maintaining one’s humanity when fighting a war.

Animorphs is top tier fiction, because it’s completely accessible while embracing darker themes and working through hope, tragedy, humour, and heartwarming friendship moments in every book without it ever feeling rushed.

Animorphs makes me feel all kinds of emotions. There are scenes that I find horrifying and tragic and gutwrenching and all that, but they’re juxtaposed with some of the most ridiculously funny scenes I’ve ever read in anything. I’ll reread the books, and I’ll never not laugh at things like the lead characters’ incompetent rescue of an android using clothes from Tommy Hilfiger, a Bill Clinton mask, and a misspelled sandwich board sign, while they argue something stupid in the middle of a dangerous situation. It’s so hilariously nineties, that now even lines that would have been pretty neutral twenty years ago have me laughing. Then I turn the page, and it’s dead serious again. The same book that had an alien driving a yellow Mustang across a planet that neither he nor Mustangs come from while drinking Dr. Pepper had the same alien run away to Earth because he didn’t want to fight a war anymore.

The writing is geared toward children, and it’s blunt and direct and very far from subtle, but it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s effective. It’s simplistic and it gets the point across without ever getting bogged down in flowery language or needing elaborate symbolism. There are plenty of allusions to classics which allows for some really fun analysis, but the series stands perfectly well alone without needing to understand those references. Before all else, it’s an entertaining story. Most of the books are very short, but they still both address serious issues and entertain.

Animorphs is indisputably kind of weird and unexpected, but it’s fantastic. Sure, there’s some inconsistent quality issues and plot holes/contradictions – that’s to be expected when there’s so many of them and a large chunk of the series was ghostwritten. But the weirdness contributes to making it memorable, because it never holds back. It’s so, so good, and everyone should read it.