Friday, 25 July 2014

Laura Rereading: the Animorphs series

Cover of the third Animorphs book,
narrated by Tobias, who gets 'trapped'
as a hawk in the first book. I had a massive
pre-teen crush on Tobias and, in honour of
that fact, all the covers I'm featuring
are of him and his hot, floppy-haired,
angsty cover models.
This post will include spoilers for all Animorphs books.

This post involves a bit of explanation, because while the Animorphs series were phenomenally popular in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, they were never as well-known in the UK, although all the books were published here as well. I was a staunch fan since reading one of the early books in the series aged eleven, and insisted on ordering the rest from America as they came out so I didn't have to wait for the later UK publication (and far inferior covers). Essentially, the series, aimed at eight to twelve-year-olds, focused on five teenagers who were given the power to morph, or turn into any animal they could touch, in order to fight an invasion of aliens called Yeerks who infested humans by entering their brains and controlling their minds. It ran to fifty-four books total, plus special editions and 'chronicles' that looked at the backstories of the various alien races the teenagers encounter. Each character took turns narrating a book.

While finishing off my PhD thesis, I decided to re-read all the Animorph books I still own in sequence (my collection is not complete, as I dumped some of the ghostwritten books in the middle of the series due to their poor quality compared to those produced by the original writers, Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant) and was amazed by how absorbing, thought-provoking and fun they still are to read. In my opinion, they stand head and shoulders over popular children's and YA dystopian offerings today, from The Hunger Games to Divergent and beyond. Why? To be as brief as possible…

Swoon. Also, it's clear Tobias primarily identifies
as a hawk, not a human, by #23.
1. The characterisation. Although it takes a few books to establish the five main characters (plus their alien buddy, Ax) beyond their initial character traits, Animorphs continues to develop all five of them in subtle and interesting ways throughout its long run. Tobias, for example, starts off as a stereotypical bullied sensitive type. He then gets trapped in hawk 'morph' after staying in it for more than two hours, one of the restrictions of 'morphing.' Initially, it seems as if this is going to provide another excuse for Tobias to angst about his terrible life. In the long run, it turns him into a much more complex character as the reader realises he is actually happier as a hawk than he ever was as a human. He's also affected by living alongside the hawk's instincts in his head, which deeply alters his personality; much is made of the fact that he's now a predator who has to kills small animals to survive, but on my re-read, I found myself getting interested in the less obvious changes, such as the fact he now defines good weather by the quality of the thermals and irrationally hates owls and crows. On the whole, it's clear that the Tobias who started the series no longer exists, and the new Tobias is a true meld of hawk and human, rather than a human who has to live alongside a hawk mind, as I interpreted it when I read these books as a teenager.

2. And the characterisation. Animorphs, however, does equally well with its fully human characters. Take Rachel, who starts off as a beautiful gymnast who is obsessed with shopping and ends up being addicted to the violence of the war. The beauty of her transformation isn't the contrast but the way in which you can genuinely see that her reckless, violent tendencies were inherent in the character all along. The writers follow the logic of the stereotype they initially created - the reckless, tough, hot 'strong girl' - to some much more interesting places. She's like a better Katniss. Or take Cassie, Rachel's inverse, who starts off as the kindest, most moral member of the group and who resorts to a kind of moral cowardice, passing the consequences of her actions on to the other Animorphs because she can't bear to witness them. Cassie is usually everyone's least favourite character for this reason, but I actually think she takes some of the very bravest actions in the series as well. To her misfortune, she's cursed with the ability to read people and hence to manipulate them alongside powerful empathy; these qualities make her both the strongest and weakest of the Animorphs.

3. And the characterisation… I think you get the point. But it's rare to see this in a children's book, or even in the majority of adult books.

4. The grey morality. Whenever people say to me that children/teenagers want black and white morality, good guys and bad guys, in their novels, I always tell them about Animorphs and my sheer relief, aged eleven, that somebody had finally realised that grey characters were more interesting. Animorphs sticks with a fairly black-and-white formula for a while, but once it starts humanising its villains and darkening its good guys, it never really stops. By the end of the novels, the Animorphs are in alliance with an alien race they previously presumed were evil, while they're opposing the xenocidal tendencies of the alien race they predominantly saw as good. Meanwhile, their attitude to their major enemies, the Yeerks, has become more complex that you would have thought possible after reading #1.

My sister (right) and I enjoying a sublime reading experience
in summer 2008. Also, hot Tobias cover on the book on
the right.
5. Logical follow-through. This is clearly not true of the series as a whole. Animorphs is a big, sprawling mess of plot holes. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the fact that the authors have clearly taken time to think about the implications of the key powers and rules that they establish for the series. I tested this recently by telling my fiancé about the series, and was interested to note that the books do pre-empt and deal with all the plot-holey questions he posed. "But can they morph a Yeerk?" "Yes, #29." "Do all the Yeerks want to control humans?" "No, #19." "Why don't they make lots more Animorphs?" "The morphing cube, and also, David." "Why don't they let Yeerks morph humans?" "This is indeed the solution." This may say a bit too much about my encyclopaedic knowledge of this series…

6. Respect for young readers. Animorphs is a dark and complex series. The writers knew that children can cope with darkness, and with complexity, if they are interested enough to read on. Indeed, I'm more disturbed by the scenes of mental and physical torture now than I was as an eleven-year-old.

Scholastic recently reissued the first eight Animorphs books, but they cancelled the reissue due to poor sales. It's odd that the series was so successful back in the day, but not now. Long-running series do appear to have been more popular in children's fiction in the 1990s (Goosebumps, The Babysitters' Club, etc) whereas the trend now seems to be towards trilogies or shorter series, perhaps inspired by Harry Potter. It's a shame, however, because, despite the simple writing, I think Animorphs has most of these series beat. Are there any other UK fans out there?

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