Remember the Animorphs?

Remember the Animorphs? They were pretty huge back in the late 1990s-early 2000s; I even remember reading somewhere that the Animorphs books outsold Harry Potter at one point…. though this may have been before the HP movies came out and the HP franchise went totally bananas. I’m not sure. There were lots and lots of Animorphs books and spin-off books, there was a TV series that nobody liked and everybody wants to forget, a couple of video games that nobody liked and everybody wants to forget, some Transformers-brand toys that nobody liked and everybody wants to forget…

…okay, Animorphs did NOT do well with its merch. But the books are still fondly remembered today, to the point where they’ve started releasing a comic book adaptation (which is apparently at least decent), there are audiobooks available, and there’s talk of a movie (though I’m not holding my breath for that).

Just so everyone’s on board: Animorphs is, or was, one of the Scholastic book series; short (150-ish pages) serialized books that were designed to be quick and easy reads for older kids… much in the same vein as fellow Scholastic series  Goosebumps and The Baby-Sitters Club. The series was written by husband-and-wife team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, under the collective pen name “K. A. Applegate,” and chronicled the adventures of five human kids/teens and an alien, who all have the power to turn into various animals, and who use these powers to fight a guerilla-like war against a secret alien invasion of planet Earth.

There’s more to the series than that, of course, but that’s the basic sum-up. 

Animorphs is famous for being one of the most violent, gory, traumatizing kids’ series EVER. There’s death and violence galore, some books are pure angst-fests, the kids all end up suffering from PSTD, and the ending of the series infamously enraged all the fans because nobody got a happy ending and it’s implied that all the main characters except one died horribly moments after the last book ended. And this was all intentional on the authors’ part. Turns out the entire series was a message from the authors to their audience that was basically “Hey, kids, war isn’t cool, okay? It’s gory, messy, traumatizing and terrible. There are no winners in war, only losers. If you didn’t like how this series ended, then maybe when you grow up don’t vote for warmongers and you won’t see a reenactment of it in real life.” 

People hated the ending when the book came out. Nowadays, though, it seems like more people have softened on the ending, even praise the authors for daring to go all-out on a “war is hell” series for kids instead of tacking on a happy ending. 

Lately, Animorphs has been held up by a lot of people as “the series who should have made it big instead of Harry Potter.” Partly this is backlash against JK Rowing’s increasing bigotry… it’s kind of the same as people trying to push the Percy Jackson books as “the series who should be bigger than Harry Potter,” pointing out that author Rick Riordan actually seems to be a decent person who not only displays a much more open and tolerant attitude, but unlike JKR is willing to listen to criticism and improve. And the same can be said about Applegate & Grant, who by all accounts seem like good people. No JKR-like bigotry for them…  they have a trans daughter, and are totally supportive. (And Katherine has even Tweeted that she wishes they’d done more LGBTQ representation in the books, but has encouraged fan fiction and fan interpretations of characters as queer, which is already a better response than JKR’s somewhat smug “I was representative all along, look at this very minor character” tactic.) 

But are the Animorphs books themselves BETTER than the HP ones? I read both series as a kid, and I re-read a number of them as an adults… and my answer to that series is… a resounding “meh.”

Don’t get me wrong. The Animorphs books have a lot going for them.

The absolute best thing about the books is their dedication to xenofiction. When the kids transform into various animals, the reader is treated to some glorious descriptions on how those animals experience the world, how their senses, sensibilities and comprehensions differ from humans. Not all of it is 100% scientifically accurate, but it’s close enough that it’s EXCTREMELY convincing. You totally believe that these kids experience life as those animals would experience it. We even get to experience the human body and mind from the POV of an alien. It’s really cool.

The second best thing is the characters. Unlike HP, which stays pretty consistently to Harry’s limited POV, the Animorphs books splits its POV between the six main characters. Each book in the series focuses primarily on one member of the team and is told in that team member’s voice and from his/her perspective. Which means we get into the heads of ALL the main characters. We know intimately how each of them thinks and feels, how they relate to each of the other team members, what lines they will and won’t cross, and how they cope with difficult situations.  All this means that Animorphs is one of the truest examples of an ensemble cast I’ve seen in literature. All the characters get plenty of focus, importance and development, and no one character emerges as the star of the show or the main focus. Because there are 50-plus books, and the books are generally short and easy, the series manages to dedicate enough time to develop and explore all six main characters, plus a few side characters, in surprising depth, without them crowding out each other.

There’s also an earnestness I really appreciate here. In some ways, returning to the Animorphs books feels less iffy than returning to the HP books. While the Animorphs books are a LOT more violent and gory, and turn up the angst to ridiculous extremes, to the point where some books are just 150-page-long “life sucks and then you die” statements, and every single characters commits terrible atrocities in order to survive… they SOMEHOW don’t feel as mean-spirited as the HP series sometimes does. Maybe because when all is said and done, the tone and feel is a lot more open and inclusive. Sure, the kids live a paranoid existence where they can’t trust anyone, but about survival and not because they think they’re superior. Characters who DO think they’re superior are nearly always proven wrong and tend to either get humbled or end up being totally ineffective in the end. And while the series shows humanity at its worst, it also shows it at its best.

But. Well. For all the praise I give the books, they have flaws galore. There are inconsistencies and plot holes you could drive a truck through. Often characters act like idiots for no other reason than the plot needs them to. The books also very much show signs of having been churned out very quickly… which they must have been, given how Scholastic published like one 150+ page book per month, plus a number of longer “Megamorphs” books and “Chronicles” that told about the various aliens and alien worlds. So the writing often feels rushed; like I can’t help but think it would have been better to slow down a bit and perhaps do a rewrite. Or five.

Doesn’t help that more than half the series was ghostwritten by various authors, and while some of the ghostwriters were good… some of them weren’t. You can sometimes tell when a ghostwriter disagreed with the general tone and feel of the series and when opinions clashed, resulting in some weird tonal inconsistencies.

There’s also… well. These books were written in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it shows. BOY DOES IT SHOW. The books almost come across as period pieces for the late 1990s, for better or for worse, not just with tech and pop culture references, but with social relations and politics. There’s this rather eye-rolly hyper-nationalistic “America’s the greatest, fuck yeah, we’ve taken care of all the serious problems!” attitude that makes me want to hide my head in my hands and sob, but is very typical for the time period.

And a few of the books are just plain BAD. Sometimes the premise of a book is just too stupid to take seriously (and this comes from ME, who loves stupid premises) and sometimes the writing just fails at what it was setting out to do. I also have no idea what Jonathan Taylor Thomas did to Applegate & Grant, but boy do they lay on the hate for him in one of these books. They essentially create an OC blatantly based on him and spend the entire book bashing that OC and showing how much he sucks. I still don’t get what that was about.

All in all, I’m not sure how well the Animorphs books stand up to the test of time. They were written during a specific time in history, FOR a specific time in history, and several aspects are horribly dated. But the alien stuff, the characters and the xenofiction… that’s what makes the series memorable, and that part still holds up.

Could Animorphs have replaced Harry Potter as the great cultural phenomenon? Probably not. It doesn’t have enough “wish-fulfilment” aspects and goes too hard on the “actually, this majorly sucks” vibe. It’s also too tied to its time period. But for all that, it’s still a series I remember fondly, and which had some really good ideas. Authors looking for inspiration for the next big kids’ franchise could do worse than look back to Animorphs and take some inspiration from the morphing kids..

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