In August 1996, Scholastic published a book called The Encounter by K.A. Applegate. I wouldn’t read it for several years, but while I remained firmly sequestered from pop culture, The Encounter and the series to which it belonged—Animorphs—would begin rapidly changing the face of young adult SF/F fiction.
Today, it’s hard to imagine how the genre would have evolved without Applegate’s iconic influence (not to mention her husband, Michael Grant, who helped write the series); and yet, the number of young readers who recognize the series is dwindling. That’s a shame, because if you’re a modern kid looking for violent coming-of-age stories that promote gender equality, racial tolerance, and the freedom to self-identify, you can’t ask for a better saga than Animorphs.
I happened upon The Encounter one day in the library just after entering elementary school. It stood out on the creaky plastic spinner racks immediately, with its purple cover, weird stylized logo, and photo-manipulated cover of a scruffy boy turning into a bird. Looking back, I was probably hooked before I even opened to page one.
Once I did, of course, I was a little confused; I’d managed to plunge myself into the Animorphs series three books into its tale, so I had a bit of catching up to do. I was informed that the Earth was under attack from a sinister race of mind-controlling alien slugs called Yeerks. They’d conquered tons of other races and used them as host bodies—now they wanted ours. Earth’s only defense was a group of five teenagers who’d received a gift from a dying centaur-like alien named Elfangor: the power to turn into any animal they touched.
Naturally, there were some complications. Our heroes couldn’t stay in animal shapes for longer than two hours, or they’d be trapped in that body forever. By the time I read The Encounter, one team member had already fallen victim to this tragedy. His name was Tobias, and he’d traded his life as a troubled teen for one as a red-tailed hawk. The Encounter was his first point-of-view book of the series, and it blew my little mind.
I’d begun reading comics when I was four or five, and like so many kids that grew up on weird stories of super-science and space adventures, I turned out a little odd. I didn’t fit in; I wasn’t athletic at all, I didn’t have hardly any close friends, and I was slowly starting to get a Reputation at my new school. It was the classic story of youthful ostracism many of my fellow nerds experienced. But all of a sudden, I’d found Tobias—a kid who (had once) looked a bit like me, acted like me, and gotten picked on like me—and he was fighting aliens and flying! Sure, Peter Parker could do stuff like that, but his powers were great across the board, and in the 1990s comics Spider-Man was dealing with some adult stuff like the apparent death of his wife that I couldn’t get into. Tobias had adult problems too—but he was a kid. A kid with rad talons and his own meadow. I didn’t have the terrible human life Tobias had come from, but I could still relate.
That was my impression after the first chapter. After reading the rest of The Encounter—in which Tobias becomes overwhelmed by his hawk instincts, eats a rat, spirals into depression, tries to commit suicide, and eventually dedicates his life to the war on Yeerks as a way of retaining what’s left of his humanity—I was shaken up. There was too much here to digest. Instead of getting overwhelmed, though, I dove in headfirst and continued the series.
The next book, The Message, was from the POV of Cassie—a black girl who brought a pacifistic voice to the team. The Animorphs found Elfangor’s little brother at the bottom of the ocean. Team comic relief Marco almost died after being ripped in half. I kept reading. Number six, The Capture, was a nail-biting mental horror book as team leader Jake fell victim to Yeerk enslavement. I kept reading.
I would eventually tear my way through most of the series’ 64 books (skipping around here and there due to unavailability and/or disinterest in a book’s premise). Along the way, I was unconsciously deepening my understanding of wartime ethics, feminism, the importance of diversity, and many more sociopolitical issues that, almost twenty years later, are still just as important as they were when the books were first published.
Of course, one of the most important things to consider when talking about why Animorphs is still so important is that it’s given us the “shifter” genre that’s so popular in today’s young- and new adult fiction. As much as the Twilight Saga owes to the horror stories of yesteryear, it also owes to Animorphs for making the thought of shirtless teenagers turning into wolves so appealing. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, the shifter romances of Kim Harrison—if it’s got shapeshifting in it, chances are there’s a trace of Animorphs in there somewhere. The current climate may lean toward the fantasy side of things, but in my understanding, Animorphs created the modern market.
But its influence over the development of young adult SF/F is only part of the picture. To me, Animorphs has stayed relevant because it represents in many ways an aspirational model for genre fiction; that is to say, it’s guided us along our current path, but can also show us a better one if we listen. Cassie and Marco are both minority characters, but not ones who are defined by their otherness. Race is only a factor when necessary (time travel plots in particular). Gender roles are frequently subverted, with Jake’s cousin Rachel—a willowy blonde with a penchant for clothes shopping—rapidly becoming a berserker warrior with extreme control issues. Cassie fills a more traditional role, but in a nonconforming way—she’s a veterinary scientist in the making, eschewing fashion in favor of functional coveralls. Together, Rachel and Cassie paint a compelling picture of intersectional feminism that gets glossed over too often in SF/F for young readers. (Looking at you, Bella.)
Animorphs also had horrifyingly accurate portrayals of life in wartime that have never been more relevant to young people today. That time Marco almost got ripped in half in The Message? Not even close to the only time the Animorphs would receive (or dish out) graphic, excruciatingly painful wounds in combat. Throats are torn out, bodies dismembered, and untold quantities of blood spilled over the course of the Yeerk war—which lasts years, the bulk of the team’s high school life. All of the kids develop PTSD and change dramatically, not always (or even mostly) for the better. There are harsh truths here about the consequences of violence, truths that young readers in particular need to hear. The action scenes are undeniably cool, but there’s more than enough reality in them to make the most out-of-touch kid rethink how awesome being a soldier actually is.
For all these reasons and more, I was devastated when I heard Scholastic no longer planned to continue its relaunch of the series. They’d made it up to the eighth book before pulling the plug indefinitely. I can’t fault their business sense—if a series isn’t selling well, there’s no logical reason to let it continue—but there’s so much vital content in Animorphs that I don’t see represented in YA genre fiction anymore. I can only hope that dog-eared copies of Applegate and Grant’s epic will cling to used bookstore shelves long enough for its incredible messages to sink in. With any luck, they’ll be able to transform my favorite genres just a little more.
Sam Riedel is a freelance writer and editor from Brooklyn. He subsists on a balanced diet of noodles, Pokémon, and science fiction. Can be observed in his natural environment on twitter or tumblr. Prolonged contact may cause irritation.