Aug 25 2014 12:00pm

Animorphs: Why the Series Rocked and Why You Should Still Care

Animorphs the Encounter K.A. Applegate 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.

1. daventor
I used to love reading these books as a kid. It was dark and thought-provoking and I loved the cosmic chess game being playing between the Elemist and...the bad guy (can't remember his name right now). My favorite of the books was actually The Hork Bajir Chronicles. But I stopped reading the series somewhere in the 40s, I think. While each book was pretty short and interesting, I think the series just dragged on too long.
2. cordo_roxen
Yes! Oh you have no idea how happy I am to see Animorphs featured anywhere! It's actually quite surpising to me that the series isn't mentioned more often, as so many other childhood properties seem so hot right now and there is a lot of material to talk about. There were scores of books, plus several prequels, some choose your own adventure books, and a short-lived TV show with some admittedly terrible action figures.
You are right in that the series was very violent, but to this day I have never encountered another book that was able to showcase to me the horrors of war in a way that Animorphs did. It probably had a lot to do with my young age at the time--the quality of the writing was never great--but my heart broke for these characters. For Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Tobias, Marco and Ax.
jeff hendrix
3. templarsteel
I loved reading Animorphs, they were so good I quit reading somewhere in the 30s. I got into this series cause Waldenbooks had buy two get one free sale on the Animorph books after 6th book came out in the series
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
I can't remember where I dropped off, probably somewhere in the 20s, but I really loved this series back when I was a kid. How did they finally wrap up the plot they had going, anyway? At the point I left off at, the war seemed basically unwinnable, because you'd never know if you exterminated them all or if the ones remaining just decided to play a more subtle game.
5. Ax
Man, all of you who quit reading before the end ought to pick up the last 10 books or so. While it's true the series dragged a bit toward the middle, Applegate pulled out all the stops for the final books.
6. Troi
What a great post. Animorphs was also one of my beloved series, and had just about everything to do with who I am today. I started reading them the summer they came out (remember those Scholastic monthly papers?). I was going into my 8th–and finally–middle school year and Animorphs was the perfect series to carry me through that and on through high school. I actually feel like I grew up with the Animorphs. The year the series ended was my senior year in high school. The month the last book came out was the month I graduated. Synchronicity at is best. As the series was closing, I was reading the books less frequently and could tell that from both ends, we were moving on. And right before I started my first job five days after graduating, I binged read my way through the last four books and said good-bye. Nevertheless, it was one of those series with a cast of characters that made me feel okay for being different while growing up. It was like I was different, but I was a part of something great anyway so it didn't even matter. So yeah, thanks for talking about the Animorphs because I definitely still care.
7. jdv
Interesting how "YA" like this owes it's own nod to classique genre fiction of yore.

The description of this book (which I've never read) aligns very closely with, say, Andre Norton pulp stories involving young protagonists, sometimes girls, who have to negotiate their own paths through self-identification, etc. Some of the stories even hinged, like Le Guin stuff, on being "of colour" so there's that. Add in the discovery of transformation or powerful coming of age and/or animal telepathy and you wonder where the YA designation comes from, or see why early genre fiction was criticised for being for kids.
James Hogan
8. Sonofthunder
Zeta@ 4...I dropped off after a while too(I "grew up" and thought they were beneath silly I was!!), but I remember when the last book came out, I couldn't help but read it. One of the most impactful and emotional endings to a series I've read(truly!). I don't remember all the details, but it basically came down to Jake making the decision to destroy the giant Yeerk "home ship"(or feeding ship...whatever it was called...) - and this ended the Yeerks for good. It was a shocking ending because it wasn't heroic. He committed xenocide. And I just remember how all of them were so broken at the wasn't a "happily ever after" book at all. It felt real. It felt right. You should read it sometime, heartily recommended.
Juan Avila
9. Cumadrin
@daventor the great cosmic antagonist was called Crayak.

I got into Animorphs via a book fair at my elementary school. I started on book 16 I think, the one with Marco on the cover morphing into a hammerhead. I identified with him the most. I wish I had gotten to read every book as I was a reading nut when I was younger, but of course they just weren't always available or I simply couldn't afford them.

I'm really glad to see Animorphs featured featured here though. It was probably the book series that most heavily influenced me into loving SF/F and long pieces of writing. I'm referring to the series as a whole. I gobbled up Animorphs novels in mere hours easily.

I didn't know Scholastic was even trying to relaunch the series. That's a bummer. Anyway nice article. Animorphs did rock and I'll always care.
10. calebtobey
Hi there :) just dropping my two cents.

ANIMORPHS was and still is the saga that defined myself, my sense of humour, my continuously questioning ethics, but going with my guts.
I'll always care about them and i'll always be a part of the anifans community, and i seriously hope that they will pop up in some forms in the future.

The relaunch only had seven books, just to clarify. They made a cover for Ax book #8 but it never went into print. I was able to put together a comprehensive collection of all the series, the alternamorphs, all the chronicles and the megamorphs (with the non series book to be bought off amazon in english because i'm Italian (living in Italy) and guess what... Mondadori, the Italian publisher for Amazon, never translated and printed the last two books in the series. A petition was made but they claimed that the last two books "brought nothing new to the story" (it was THE ENDING for god's sake, it was the essential part) - i guess they did it because they were scared of the content of the last two books (the death of you-know) and poor sales troughout all the series did the rest. So if you think that Animorphs is today somewhat forgotten, imagine how it was to be a kid who had to wait to read the ending of his much beloved series. Still loving it anyway. I even own the boardgame. Anyone up for a game?
11. calebtobey
edit: Mondadori is the italian publisher for Animorphs, not Amazon. Sorry, typo.
Jeremy Guebert
12. jeremyguebert
I absolutely loved this series growing up, but I mostly read it from the library, so I never had very many of them of my own. Last summer, I ended up buying the entire collection (54 main-series books, 4 Megamorphs, Hork-Bajir, Andalite and Ellimist Chronicles, and Visser). I didn't get the Alternamorhps because they aren't cannon by their very nature (i.e. choose your own adventure books).

I then read the entire thing in chronological order over a relatively short period of time (3-4 months, iirc, for a total of 62 books...) While the intro got a bit old when reading them back to back (you don't need to keep telling me the premise of the series every 150 pages), and the individual stories were quite short, I still thoroughly enjoyed the series overall.
Allana Schneidmuller
13. blutnocheinmal
The first series I ever got obsessed with (I also enjoyed quite a few of those Dinotopia chapterbooks). I still have every book (even the choose-your-owns).

I got really lucky - reading an excerpt that was put in, I believe,
Nickolodeon magazine. So I got in from the ground floor.

Instead of trying to re-release them one by one, they could've tried for 3-in-1 books with a bit of editing to get rid of the repetitive recaps.
I still think Animorphs would make a great anime or Avatar-like TV series.
14. Qurtyslyn
Animorphs is the series that got me started on the road to Fantasy/Scifi fanaticism. I don't have my books anymore (donated them to a local library, because they didn't have the series), but it is still one of my favorite series.
15. LibraryJim
We are reading the first one and discussing the series this month in the Goodreads group Sword&Laser Kids. Check it out. So great to hear all these wonderful memories of the series
Ben Johnston
16. AlcairNovall
Good old Animorphs.... I loved this series to death. While the ending of the Yeerk war was great... I can't help but wish they'd resolved that whole thing at the end of the last book with Ax missing and then Jake, Marco, and Tobias stealing an Andalite vessel to go hunting for him... It leaves me SO CURIOUS!!

But yeah, great series that I really wish they would reprint. Lord knows if my (currently non-existant) kids are readers I'll wind up pulling them out of storage once I think they're old enough for it.
Kim B
17. Amaranthine
I loved this series as a child-- like others, I think this was probably my first foray into the sci-fi/fantasy genres. My brother and I purchased or were given every single one of the books, and we still have them. I'm not gonna lie, I still love this series. It's that good.
18. Author Nicole Tillman
As a child, I struggled with reading and stringing together a decent sentence. But after a family friend introduced me to Animorphs, I found a love of reading I was sure had passed me by. I wasn't lucky enough to discover the series once it had a few books on the shelves. At the time, only the first book had been released. So... I read... then waited... read... then waited... The time in between book releases was brutal. BRUTAL. But, slowly, I acquired and read every single book in the series, including the Chronicles and Alternamorphs. I still have all those books today. They are currently resting, safe and sound, in storage, in waterproof boxes. I don't plan on selling them, and I don't plan on letting them sit there forever. They are just waiting there until the day my oldest son Tobias (yes, you read that right. My son's name is Tobias) learns to read.
I'm a published author now and I spend my days and nights writing tirelessly to share my stories with the world. I know that without this series, and without K.A. Applegate, I wouldn't be where I am today. Her books gave me something to hold onto, something to look forward to, and something to help me grow. I will be forever grateful.
-Nicole Tillman
19. Jonrock411
That opening sounds strangely almost exactly like my introduction to the series (and the beginning of my introduction to SFF literature), just two years earlier. Exact same book and all.
20. Michael J D'Auben
I'm a bit confused by the comment about "the shifter romances of Kim Harrison". I know she's written some other books, but Ms. Harrison is best known for her "Hollows" series. While there are werewolves in the Hollows universe, none of the three main characters are "shifters" of any kind, and IIRC none of them have been involved in any serious, long term relationships with a "shifter".

I'd think Carrie Vaughn or Partricia Briggs would be better examples of authors of "shifter romances" as the main characters in their most well known stories are "shifters" who are involved romantically with other "shifters"
21. Ashley Grayson
I'm amazed to see so many people liking one of the worst structured and poorly written commercial series (outside of Goosebumps) from Scholastic. I read most of one but the prose was dull and when characters forgot dialog between scenes and lost character development after a chapter or two to re-create false tension, I gave up. Also the price of merchandizing Animorphs was high. A much better written series for which Scholastic had paid good money and invested editorial effort was never released because Marketing said: "we don't want any product on the shelf to compete with Animorphs."

All the books were manufactured. Booksellers were never solicited and orders were not filled, simply for marketing purposes.

The idea of kids turning into animals was cute at one level but never addressed the question: "what happens to an 80 pound middle schooler's body mass when he turns into a 1 pound bird?" Such simple minded science fiction doesn't build reasoning skills, and the whole "political correctness" nonsense is just marketing malarky. As for influence, I'd say Animorphs pushed children's literature down the staircase in her wheelchair for the money.
22. Andalite Bandit
The idea of kids turning into animals was cute at one level but never
addressed the question: "what happens to an 80 pound middle schooler's
body mass when he turns into a 1 pound bird?"
Hate to break it to you, Ashley Grayson, but that question was most definitely addressed, particularly in book #10: The Android and book #18: The Decision. Try again.
23. Rachel (really)
The books did get a little repetitive in the middle (though I challenge you to find a book where you can't laugh at something Marco says at least a few times), but the ending of the series is INCREDIBLE. If you liked the series but never got to the end, do yourself a favor and go find the last 10 or 15 and read them!

(Who knows, maybe it'll be just enough to convince Scholastic to put out some more reissues.)

I wish there was an easy way to collect the series, beyond buying used copies one at a time.
Beth Mitcham
24. bethmitcham
I agree that the writing style caters to children, but it was better than I expected (I read the first one for the Sword & Laser Kids group). My now-10th grader read through about 35 or so when he was in fifth grade and he really liked it.

I think formulaic fiction has a big part in children's reading, and this formula included fancy science fiction, a diverse crowd of kids, real consequences that influence future action, and comes in short bursts that encourage kids to come back for more. I don't think as an adult I'll go back to read these, but I'm glad they were there for my kids in their elementary years.
26. calebtobey
ashleigh Grayson, the answer is Z space. and it fits perfectly in the universe of what you call the most poorly constructed series of books.
before dissing on something, read the whole thing. Thanks.
Zorila Desufnoc Eht
27. AlirozTheConfused
Caleb, while I aree with you, you should never use the "you should actually read the whole thing" argument. It's cliche.
29. Drakes
I so love these books! They are the first real book series I can remember falling for completely. Rachel has always been my favourite.
I began reading the series with 9, I think, which would have been in 2006. Sadly I'm from Austria...only 30 books of the main series, all but one of the bigger extra-novels, none of the Chronicles and the Alternamorphs have been translated into German, but I think I managed to hunt most of them down through the public library. One day, when I was in the library's main location, I saw they had decided to sell them all for .5 € each...I took them, bundled them up in my sweatshirt...I was so scared I wouldn't have enough money but thank God I did. I guess everyone thought I was crazy - well, they didn't know Animorphs! I even tried reading a few of the english ones, although my English was terrible at that time and I hated the language every time I had to use it.

Although it has its plotholes (clothing, c'mon!), Animorphs was, is, and will ever be the most influential literature in my whole life. It's my childhood. I know Jake, Cassie, Ax, Rachel, Tobias and Marco better than myself. I have never know that so many people loved and love it and I'm glad this wonderful series hasn't faded into Oblivion yet.
30. Azlurete
I just recently finished book 43 and am going to get 44 soon. I love this book series and you have a very good point. I still recognize this, though the only people who I know who also recognize this amazing series are my teachers. Yeah... I wish people could know the wonder in this amazing series!
31. M Haynes
Thank you so much for this! I loved this series so much when I was little and I agree that it taught so many fantastic lessons. The series is amazing and I hope that more series can take this route.
32. Matias D'Angelo
I'm so glad to read all this comments. Animorphs meant a lot to me and I only got to read the first 15 books or so. Always wanted to read them all and get to the ending. I went to wikipedia a couple years ago to find out what happened. But I recently got the whole books and I'm going to read them. Just sailed through the first 4, and I'm hooked up. Its so dark and for what I know it gets even darker. This should be adapted into a movie series right away. There's a lot of character development and very dark and real dilemmas about war, violence and its consecuences. Its really deep and has and adult treatment of such a fantasy/scifi theme as shapeshifting/totemism. And Ashley... Don't speak if you haven't really read this series XD

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