Not too long ago, I found myself in a room full of Olde Millennials. And I casually made a deep-cut joke that was only understandable to those who’d read the Animorphs series. I think it was something about Yeerks? Or Andalites? Possibly it was just the admission that Cinnabon is the peak of all human arts and sciences!
The reaction in the room was instantaneous: gasps of recognition, faces lit with excitement. Ohhhhh my god, Animorphs, my childhooooooood! But the joke bounced harmlessly off my husband, who’d never read them. I’m not going to lie: it crushed my soul and I considered divorce.
My partner has never been much of a reader. I’m honestly not sure why, because he is exactly the kind of person you would expect to have been a voracious reader in childhood: a contemplative, dreamy person who imagines deeply and curiously. I seethe with quiet rage when I watch him watch his twentieth hour of YouTube videos exploring Dark Souls lore. How is it possible that no one pressed Garth Nix novels into your hands?
Reading was always a refuge for me. When my life wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I could climb inside someone else’s. As George R. R. Martin says: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” I can’t imagine what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t read the books I did.
Today I want to talk about six lives I climbed inside again and again when I was a child: Jake, Rachel, Marco, Tobias, Cassie, and Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill. AKA (ah, Katherine Applegate) the Animorphs.
I picked them up again recently, expecting to dodge dated references and cringey cultural throwbacks. But to my electric delight, this twenty-year-old series has never felt fresher or more relevant. As a successful Internet Person, I only want to leverage my platform for the things that really matter—like trying to get more people to read a 90s book series about elephants beating up aliens. It’s a calculated decision. This shit matters.
Animorphs is a story made for life in Donald Trump’s America.
Reading Animorphs today
In an act of supreme marital trust, I began reading some of my most treasured books aloud to my partner. On long car trips, I taught him what could make a unicorn feel regret. During tedious airport waits, I whispered important translations: a single dot in Tralfamadorian, and the Hebrew word “timshel.” Sitting in the hammock of our yard, surrounded by a blazing chorus of cicadas, I revealed the profound secret of what makes dæmons stop changing. They’re nice memories now, for both of us.
Obviously the whole reading aloud thing wouldn’t work for Animorphs, a long-running series of 64 books. But I asked if I could read him the first scene—just the first scene!—of the first book. Just to give him a taste.
He listened with the respectful curiosity a husband owes to his wife’s childhood obsessions. So I read a little more, and a little more. And I wallowed, smug as a pig in its own shit, as his reactions grew from tepid “wows” and “woahs” to explosive “hooooooly shits” and “what the fucks!?”
Long story short, we’re 29 books deep and driving ever onward. This shit is good, y’all. Here are just a few reasons why.
Please note: the rest of this article will contain spoilers. But they will be the least spoilery spoilers I can manage. I’ll talk about broad plot points, but give no specifics that would steal your surprise or enjoyment.
We should never have been allowed to read these books
“I felt my throat tighten and constrict. My hearts ached with a pain I could not describe. I wondered if I were dying. l felt not sadness. I felt pity. For myself. For us all. We were children no longer. And we never would be again.”– The Sacrifice
Lots of people have told me their parents bought them Animorphs because the covers promised stories about kids who can turn into tigers and fight aliens. And they’re not wrong?
Broadly, Animorphs is the story of five children taking a shortcut through an abandoned construction site one night. An alien ship lands in front of them, and a benevolent alien prince tumbles out, badly injured and dying. With the last of his strength, he warns the children that their planet is already under attack from a parasitic alien race, which is quietly pulling an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of situation on the human race.
Reinforcements won’t arrive for one to two years. By then, it will be too late. So our dying alien friend gives the children access to a forbidden super-advanced technology: the ability to morph into animals.
There are limitations. They can only morph into a living creature they’ve physically touched. And they can’t stay in a morph for more than two hours or they’re trapped forever. Their only goal is to stall the invasion until the cavalry comes.
Sounds fun, right?
But if our parents had ever cracked those books, they would’ve found stuff they almost certainly didn’t think we were ready for. The Animorphs series ran from 1996 to 2001. It’s shocking that this story came from a pre-9/11 world. Applegate has a perspective on the world, and it’s…dark.
Talk down to children and children will know it
According to Wikipedia: “horror, war, dehumanization, sanity, morality, innocence, leadership, freedom, and growing up are the core themes of the series.” That’s all true, but it kinda only scratches the surface?
Like, in these books, a child realizes he is losing a fight, and has to run for his life while holding his intestines in, which are spilling out from his abdominal wounds. And die-hard fans of the series won’t know which scene I’m talking about here, because that level of brutal violence is so commonplace that this exact thing happens more than once.
So many worse things happen. Children kill each other—more than once. On more than one occasion, children are tortured until they beg for the release of death. Children make a choice to sacrifice the lives of other children, while we ride around in their heads absorbing the agonizing weight of that decision—you guessed it, more than once!
These books offered an uncompromisingly brutal vision of the way the universe works. The vividness of that brutality made other children’s literature seem colorless. I suddenly saw the cushy plot armor protecting Meg Murry, and the blocky simplicity of Alanna’s gender conformity issues. Who were they compared to Rachel? Rachel, who pushes aside the identity society reflexively assigns her, and finds not a noble and heroic self, but a terrifying bottomless capacity for violence?
Animorphs never speaks down to children, as its heroes or as its readers.
When adults fail to act, their children pay the price
Our heroes are around 13 years old when the story begins, and 16 when it concludes. The things they do in those three years are absolutely incredible. But those incredible things change them—some for the better, others for the worse. And they never lose the authenticity that lives at the core of each voice.
Our heroes are six children. Five of them are human, and one of them is an Andalite, a youthful representative of the universe’s “good guy” species.
When the series starts, the Yeerks (you guessed it, the universe’s “bad guy” species) have already begun their quiet invasion of Earth. Initially, the Animorphs assume they are only holding the line while the adults get their shit together. But soon it becomes terribly clear that the groundwork for the invasion was laid by the complicity of their elders within both species.
And boy, that’s some #relatablecontent.
In Animorphs, as in the real world, the institutions we consider to be paragons of morality can still disappoint us with apathy, bureaucracy, pettiness, and greed. Adults make a lot of promises in these books and fail to deliver on almost all of them.
Children today are more anxious and depressed than ever before. Animorphs validates the impossibly unfair inheritances we’ve gifted them: a planet in crisis, turmoil among our allies, enemies not at the gates but well past them, smiling comfortably upon our thrones. Applegate knows that we live in a world that loves to kick the can down the road, and shrewdly concocts a world in which we have officially run out of road—and it’s children who are left holding the bag.
The bag… with a can in it? Whatever. I did not mix those metaphors, I gently folded them!
Power comes with a terrible cost
I was always a little hit-or-miss with the superhero genre. Like, most of the X-Men’s problems had little to do with blasting laser beams outta their eyes and a lot to do with cheating on their wives. That bugged the hell out of me.
Animorphs, by contrast, kept the team’s struggles tightly aligned with their direct situation. Spending time as not-humans leads them to question their intrinsic humanity. Although their morphing power allows them to heal most injuries, the psychological impact of those injuries remain. When one of the Animorphs becomes trapped in the form of a red-tailed hawk, he wants to eat mice and fuck other hawks.
Their superpowers come with serious price tags. All of the Animorphs have PTSD to different degrees. They process their feelings about the war very differently. Jake becomes anxious; Marco, cynical; Cassie, idealistic; Ax, confused; Tobias, avoidant; Rachel, violent.
Holy shit, people are different?
Each novel is one long monologue, delivered from one child (the protagonist) directly to another (the reader). This intimate narration creates room to showcase all of these coping strategies. Take, for instance, Jake’s characterization of what seems to be the Animorphs’ first kill of a human character, in the very first book.
Cassie had gotten away clean. It had been the suspicious Controller policeman who had grabbed her. He was the only Controller to know her name, where she lived, and that she had been spying on The Sharing. Cassie said we didn’t have to worry about him anymore.
She didn’t want to talk about what had happened to him.– The Invasion
Gentle Cassie, we can presume, accidentally-on-purpose stove his head in with a kick from her horse morph. Jake is too focused on the justified ends to push himself or Cassie to examine the means. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, by Jake’s design.
In Cassie’s own head, she gives herself no such breaks.
I wish I could tell you my whole name. Because that would mean I was a nice, normal girl. But I’m not either one. Not nice. Not normal.
Okay, my friends think I’m nice. Marco is always calling me a tree-hugger. And even though I don’t actually hug trees, I do care about them. Which makes me nice, right? A girl who cares about trees can’t be anything but nice.
Unless that girl has also ripped a living creature’s throat out with her bare teeth. Which I have.
I was in wolf morph, deep in battle. Seven Hork-Bajir against six of us. Jake gave the order to retreat. And either right before he said it, or right after, I yanked the throat out of the Hork-Bajir I was fighting.
I hope it was right before. I hope that I didn’t go in for the kill when I could have just run. But I’m not sure.
That’s why I don’t think I qualify as nice. You’ve probably already gotten a clue why I don’t qualify as normal.– The Departure
Cassie here is recounting an incident that happened eight books previously—several in-world months. Every act of violence for her is a big fucking deal. She’s courageous in facing her own depravity, and she understands intellectually why she did it. Even if she’s moved past her initial reflexive self-loathing, she recognizes that violence has fundamentally changed her.
Marco has a strong sense of self preservation, and is rarely bothered by his own violence. When it’s his only choice, he makes it and doesn’t feel bad about it later. One does what one must do to survive.
But when the opportunity to fight presents itself, Rachel never hesitates. She shoots to kill easily, instinctively. And it isn’t her own capacity for violence that disturbs her—it’s her complete lack of remorse. She knows that it’s probably wrong, but why does it feel like she’s doing what she was born to do?
Every character has a different set of values, desires, and fears. Every character processes differently. Reading Animorphs when I was young helped me build empathy for other people’s perspectives. As a Marco/Rachel-ish type of person, I couldn’t believe Cassie’s capacity for idealistic moralizing. (Girl, there’s a war on!) But over time, I recognized the value of those diverse perspectives in strengthening the team.
Authority cannot be trusted
The Animorphs’ enemies are the Yeerks. They’re parasitic aliens that can enter the brain through the ear canal and assume direct control of the host’s body. They can freely access memories to mimic everything about that host. They’ve conquered three other species, and mankind is their next goal.
The Yeerks prefer to keep their invasion quiet until they gain critical infection mass. To facilitate this, they intentionally seek to infect powerful people—people in law enforcement, news media, politics, finance, the military… Once humanity learns of the threat, it will be too late. The institutions meant to shield mankind become a sword to strike them down.
It’s a good strategy. It’s the actual strategy employed by lots of unsavory movements and groups. (Wait, did Animorphs pave the way for young people to believe in Q Anon…? Ugh. I digress.) I’m not someone who’s skeptical of every powerful person and institution. But I learned to be very skeptical of the reasons that people claim to want power, and how they claim to intend to use it once they have it.
To adapt, the Animorphs and their eventual allies must become self-driven and self-reliant. They must fight to preserve their freedom with their own hands. And claws. And hooves, and talons, and fins. God, these books rock.
Evil hides beneath the surface of everyday interactions
Very early on in the first book, we learn that Jake’s brother has already been taken and made into a host for a Yeerk. Jake pretends not to know, and watches his puppet-brother subtly, slyly work against his family and friends. Isolating them, entrapping them, aligning them with his alien sensibilities.
Every Animorph eventually has someone close to them taken. Most end up sitting across the dinner table from their enemy.
This anxiety speaks to our times more than it did in the books’ original run. Fascism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia are rising across every continent. Sixty-two million of my fellow Americans willingly voted to elect a disgustingly hateful autocrat. Everywhere I go, I cast my eyes around the room and try to guess—who’s hiding ugly thoughts behind smiling eyes?
Who around me thinks that immigrants are criminals? That poor people are stupid and lazy? That women love to lie about being raped? When people have such abhorrent thoughts, they rarely have the temerity to state them openly. They hide until they feel strong enough to go unchallenged.
The Yeerks initially seem to be evil for evil’s sake. And our Big Bad, Visser Three, serves full-on, campy, mustache-twirling realness. But the scariest part about the Yeerks is when you talk to one and it… starts making sense. In their natural form, they can’t enjoy the worldly pleasures that make life worth living. Doesn’t it seem fair for them to covet our bodies?
“Most of you humans don’t even know what you have. You have the most beautiful planet in the galaxy. No other place is so alive. In no other place are there so many trees, so many flowers, so many amazing creatures. You live in a palace. You live in paradise, and you hate me for wanting to live there, too.”– The Departure
All of this makes Yeerks a frighteningly apt metaphor for the banality of normalized evil.
Everything’s burning, but this is fine
It’s crucial that the Animorphs maintain their secret identities. If they’re captured, they will certainly become powerful tools of their enemies.
So they go to school. They have dinner with their families. To discuss tactics and strategy, they sit in plain sight at the mall, looking to all the world like a normal group of teens just hanging out. They scribble bullshit essays on bullshit topics between life-and-death encounters. They meticulously craft their lives so that everything appears normal.
If you don’t relate to that, you haven’t been paying attention.
When I was a little kid and I first learned about the Holocaust, I remember a teacher asking: “If we saw our neighbors being dragged away, what would we do? Fight? Or turn and look the other way?”
I so confidently said that I would fight. Now my country is throwing people into cages like filthy animals. And I’m going to work and paying bills and cutting the grass and fixing my toilet and watching Netflix. Sure, I’m talking about what’s happening both on social media and in-person. I’m thinking about it. I’m voting against the party and policies perpetrating it. Does that amount to a fight? I know the answer, and I’m ashamed of it.
Animorphs is a long meditation on the nature of power. Our heroes are trapped in the most significant crisis in human history, but bound by the mundane realities of daily life. The Yeerk threat specifically appeals to our collective desire to sit back, live our lives as usual, and pretend that everything is fine.
K. A. is killing me with this shit.
Humanity isn’t necessarily worth saving
“Humans. Violent but peace-loving. Passionate but cerebral. Humane but cruel. Impulsive but calculating. Generous but selfish. Humans. Altogether a contradictory and deeply flawed species. And yet… and yet, somehow I knew that they represented the best hope of the galaxy. Perhaps the only hope.”– The Sacrifice
Even as the Animorphs try to save humanity, Applegate reminds us that not all humans deserve it.
Just as the good guys aren’t uniformly good and the bad guys aren’t uniformly bad, the territory they fight over (that’d be mankind) is often portrayed as an ugly, dirty patch of scrubland no one should want anyhow. There are psychopaths and chickenshits and sellouts and profiteers among us, and they occasionally cause more destruction than the evil aliens.
I know a lot of people who have hearts overflowing with the desire to do good in the world. They jump into careers as teachers, counselors, activists, environmentalists, and all manner of not-for-profit do-gooders. And on more occasions than I can count, I’ve seen them get worn down by the relentless parade of extremely unhelpful people they meet along the way. People who aren’t honest, aren’t engaged, aren’t listening, aren’t caring… It’s enough to make you want to quit.
Every Animorph grapples with the decision to give up or keep going. Implicit in this is the question: is our species worth saving? Again and again, they decide that it is, though it’s never without debate.
Humor can’t save our lives, but it can save our souls
“Humans have very odd tastes. They think their music is beautiful. They are wrong. It is awful. All of it. And they completely ignore their greatest accomplishments: the cinnamon bun, the Snickers bar, the hot pepper, and the refreshing beverage called vinegar.”– The Alien
It probably doesn’t sound like it, but the Animorphs books are blessedly funny.
- Visser One initially thought Star Trek was nonfiction, and wanted to avoid humans forever, fearing their incredible technological prowess.
- Ax is glimpsed in his true form by some children, who insist he is a Pokemon and try to capture him for training purposes.
- Cassie is so bad at lying, when asked to give a fake phone number, she writes down “123-45678.”
The books are funny as hell—because they have to be. Without humor, the rest of the material is too relentlessly grim to be endured. Applegate knows when we need jokes about “happy meals with extra happy.”
The best humor is the humor that illustrates the absurdity of ourselves as human beings. In a standalone prequel, an alien marvels at the fact that humans walk upright on two legs, without tails to act as a counterbalance. (When you think about it, this is extremely unusual, even on our own planet.) He thinks about how easily we could be knocked over. And he imagines that Earth must be a delightfully funny place, with people falling over all the time. And he laughs, and he laughs, and he laughs.
He finally gets to visit Earth one day. And when he does, he’s captured by hostile forces, who eat him alive. Wet, raw pieces of him rain down on our thirteen-year-old protagonists, who are hiding in terror nearby.
That’s the first scene of Animorphs—the one I made my husband read. Just to give him a taste.
A TASTE OF HELL.
Y’all gotta read these books
Like the half-animal, half-human figures on their covers, Animorphs is an unsettling amalgamation of unlike things. Peacetime and war. Humor and horror. Self-reliance and interdependence. Adult fears and childhood comforts.
I really can’t recommend them highly enough. There’s a pleasing minimum of cringey ideas that have aged poorly. It’s like wading through a river of gold and finding the occasional odd turd floating on the surface. It’s well worth it!
If I’ve piqued your interest, you’ll be happy to know you can read all Animorphs books online, for free, right now. Go here.
I know what you’re thinking—us? Pirating the work of artists?! Unfortunately, the majority of the books are out of print. As long as this is the case, Applegate herself has blessed the downloading and sharing of the files.
“We do not take them down. Or ask for them to be taken down. I think once the books are available to buy—paper or e—it would be nice if people who could afford it would buy. (Our kids have very expensive tastes. You know: food and whatnot.) But for years they’ve been unavailable except by “pirated” means. These men and women kept the series alive. They kept the books available.”– K. A. Applegate
I knew I loved ya, Kathy.
BGR’s official Animorphs reading guide
The series had a rather famous sophomore slump where Scholastic demanded more books, and Applegate passed off writing duties to ghost writers. With that in mind, I’ve prepared a reading guide below.
Read in this order. The struck-through ones can be skipped. Go to the wikis and read the summary instead. All based on my personal opinion, with which I invite arguing!
- #1 The Invasion
- #2 The Visitor
- #3 The Encounter
- #4 The Message
- #5 The Predator
- #6 The Capture
- #7 The Stranger
Megamorphs #1: The Andalite’s Gift
- #8 The Alien
#9 The Secret
- #10 The Android
#11 The Forgotten #12 The Reaction
- The Andalite Chronicles
- #13 The Change
#14 The Unknown
- #15 The Escape
- #16 The Warning
#17 The Underground
- #18 The Decision
Megamorphs #2: In the Time of Dinosaurs
- #19 The Departure
- #20 The Discovery
- #21 The Threat
- #22 The Solution
- The Hork-Bajir Chronicles
- #23 The Pretender
#24 The Suspicion #25 The Extreme
- #26 The Attack
#27 The Exposed #28 The Experiment
- #29 The Sickness
Megamorphs #3: Elfangor’s Secret
- #30 The Reunion
#31 The Conspiracy #32 The Separation
- #33 The Illusion
- #34 The Prophecy
#35 The Proposal
#36 The Mutation #37 The Weakness #38 The Arrival #39 The Hidden #40 The Other Megamorphs #4: Back to Before #41 The Familiar #42 The Journey
- #43 The Test
#44 The Unexpected
- #45 The Revelation
- #46 The Deception
- #47 The Resistance
- #48 The Return
- #49 The Diversion
- #50 The Ultimate
- #51 The Absolute
- #52 The Sacrifice
- #53 The Answer
The Ellimist Chronicles
- #54 The Beginning
So, Bitch Nation! Do you remember this series? Who was your favorite Animorph? Did you, like one of my IRL friends, highlight all of the romantic scenes for Jake and Cassie (in green) and Tobias and Rachel (in pink) so you could instantly access the schmoop at any time??
Have I successfully lit the fire within you to check them out?
What other children’s and middle-grade lit inspired the shit out of you?
Tell us about it in the comments below!