The Most Engaging War Story You Didn’t Know Was Still Relevant
For anyone who spent time in American libraries or classrooms in the mid-2000s, Katherine Applegate’s Animorphs books are probably a familiar sight. They stood out on shelves with their bright colors, punchy summaries, and frankly disturbing cover art. Despite the prominence of these books in public children’s spaces, not many people seem to have actually read much of the series. Some were chased away by the images on the cover of each book which depict children’s bodies shifting grotesquely into animal forms. Others started the first book only to find it too upsetting to finish. The covers of Animorphs may seem to be promising fun sci-fi adventures about kids turning into animals, but once they are opened, it very quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. The sci-fi world building of the series is undeniably fun, yes, and the kids do become animals, but that is far from the only thing the series has to offer. Beyond it’s campy plot premise, Animorphs is about the trauma of the young carrying the weight of previous generations mistakes; it is about the pain and confusion of body dysphoria and the feelings of isolation and paranoia that come from keeping deadly secrets; it is about the lie of benevolent paternalistic imperialism; and it is a gory anti-war tragedy in which there are truly no such things as heros. The epic tale, laid out across fifty-four books, has aliens and laser guns and shape-shifting. But it is also subtle, nuanced, and dark, and it has never been more relevant to modern-day struggles and perspectives.
For the uninitiated, it is probably best to start out with a description of the series premise. Earth is being invaded by a species of slug-like parasitic aliens called Yeerks. Yeerks take over by crawling in through your ear, wrapping around your brain, and completely overriding control of your mind, leaving you a screaming prisoner in a corner of your own head. In other words, they are bad news, and the only people on the planet aware of the threat are six thirteen-year-old-kids: Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel, and Tobias. Luckily, they are not completely helpless, as a dying blue centaur-scorpion alien prince named Elfangor has given them the power to turn, for two hours at a time, into any animal they can touch. Later, the five Animorphs are joined by another kid named Ax, an alien who is also Elfangor’s little brother. Over the course of three years and 54 books, the Animorphs barely manage to eke out a stalemate against the Yeerks. Although they achieve something like a victory in the end, it is not without astronomical costs, and the series as a whole is ultimately a tragedy, as all good war stories must be.
If you could pick out one case study to embody everything that is strange, delightful, and important about Animorphs, it would probably be the story of Tobias, the self-proclaimed bird boy. At the end of the first book, Tobias becomes permanently stuck in the body of a red-tailed hawk, and the rest of his arc for the series revolves around his feelings of being trapped in a body that does not fit him, and the intense pain and confusion that causes. Later in the series, a time-controlling alien god gives Tobias back the power to morph that he had lost. He finds that returning to human for two hours at a time no longer feels right to him. He has forgotten how to make facial expressions during his time as a hawk. He feels trapped and blind on the ground without the ability to fly away or see as well as a raptor can. There is even an implication that he may have gotten himself stuck as a bird on purpose, and that the discomfort he feels as a human boy is nothing new. Tobias ultimately rejects a concrete label for himself and his identity, concluding that he is both a human and a bird. The series ends with the implication that he will never resolve the tension within himself, and probably wouldn’t want to. Tobias’s struggles have resonated deeply with many transgender readers of Animorphs, and even without labels or intention behind it, his character is undeniably queer-themed. Tobias’s character arc is completely unique because it deals with identity without feeling the need to wrap things up in a neat bow. Animorphs is worth reading for his story alone, and you will not find anything like it anywhere else in the literary world.
Even beyond Tobias, there is so much in Animorphs that speaks to the experience of growing up queer in America. The basic premise of the series couldn’t have been a better metaphor if it tried. The kids move through their world with secret, hidden parts of their identity that make them different from their peers in a way that is invisible and yet completely tangible. If they are discovered, they will at best not be understood, at worst be captured, hurt, or forced to conform. Each new person they come across is treated with instant paranoia: “do they see through me? Do they know who I am, and if they do, am I in danger? Will they hate me for it?” Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel, Tobias, and Ax can only feel truly safe and comfortable with all parts of themselves around each other, and much of the emotional weight of the series is founded in the incredible bonds formed as the team depend on their friends to get them through the ever-increasing pressure and trauma of fighting a war.
That support is very necessary, because Animorphs absolutely refuses to pull any punches about the realities of war and its effects on the human mind. The kids’ morphing powers heal them every time they change forms, and author Applegate uses this trick to inflict gorey mortal wounds on her characters on a regular basis. They are shot, chopped in half, burned, and crushed on, and it is all rendered in as much upsetting detail as possible. The Animorphs, however, give as good as they get, a fact that is in some ways more painful to them than the physical damage they take. As animals, they must fight up close, ripping the jaws out of their enemies with their bare teeth or goring them to death with claws. One iconic moment involves Rachel using her own severed grizzly bear arm as a club to beat the alien who cut it off to death. All that violence has consequences, of course, which are addressed just as plainly as the fighting is. By the second book, Rachel is already waking up with screaming nightmares. As time passes, the segments of the books focused on hobbies and school slowly decrease as its protagonists lose interest in the things that once made them happy, and their relationships with their parents and siblings become more strained as they grow further apart in experience. The length and narrative style of the series allows for the trauma the protagonists undergo to shape them slowly and subtly, so that by the time you have completely fallen in love with a character, you are already mourning for the more innocent person they used to be.
And you are guaranteed to do quite a bit of mourning over these kids. The themes and messages of Animorphs only come across as strong as they do because of how well-developed, complex, and lovable the characters are. The format of the series changes up the narrator of each book, allowing for a relatively large cast to all feel equally complex and developed, which is a rare enough thing by itself. It is genuinely remarkable how Applegate manages to craft six character voices which are so distinct from each other that without looking at the cover, you can tell who is narrating a given book just from slight variations in the prose style. Tobias has already been discussed at length, but all of the other children have motivations and backgrounds that are just as compelling. Rachel looks like your typical tall blonde 1990s token girl, but on the battlefield she discovers in herself a bloodthirsty anger and protective streak that slowly consumes her identity until she becomes sickened at her own capacity to enjoy violence. Cassie is empathetic to a fault, and she struggles with reconciling her desire to keep her hands free of blood versus her greater obligations to fight to save the world. Ax is an alien who believes wholeheartedly in his people’s goodness, and must slowly come to terms with the propaganda he was fed growing up and his own species’ complicity in starting the war they claim to be fighting for good.
There are no new copies of Animorphs being sold anywhere in the world, as of today. They are long out of print, and today exist only in the cluttered shelves of children’s libraries, schools, and used bookstores. The generation who grew up in love with Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel, Tobias, and Ax is grown up now, and there are less and less people in the world who know what a treasure the series really is. The loss of Animorphs from the public consciousness would truly be a tragedy, because these books are not only exciting reads, they are truly important. Applegates’ takes on identity, community, violence, and imperialism have things to say that are not being said anywhere else in the fiction world right now. They may have vanished from print, but you can read the entire thing for free online right now, with the author’s blessing, from a dropbox file of PDFs. Go read Animorphs. It will make you a better person.
Thankfully, while Animorphs is out of print, Chris Grine’s graphic novel adaptation is currently in progress, and the second book is coming out in October. I haven’t read the one that’s already out, but I’ve heard that it’s a pretty good adaptation.
I really should get around to reading these, instead of ending my Animorphs experience at David Mattingly’s cover art like I did in elementary school.
Don’t forget Jake! That poor guy made decisions grown men shouldn’t have to make, never mind a kid.
As a kid I didn’t appreciate the subtleties of Animorphs. I just liked the scifi and the action. As an adult the series has ruined me. It’s so hard to remember that these are freaking kids!
I like to think Animorphs helped me break free from some of the mindsets I grew up with. Made me more open minded. And pushed my love of scifi to even greater levels.
Thank you for this article. I hope people go binge on the series after they read this. Yeah it’s a children’s series. It still has loads of lessons all ages could learn.