Monday, January 28, 2019

Animorphs Was my Favorite Book Series

The first Harry Potter book was published in the United States in the summer of 1998.  (It had come out a year earlier in the UK.)  I think I was about 12 and I remember hearing about it, because my mother worked in a book store.

"I just read a book about a boy who finds out he's a wizard," she said.

"That sounds dumb," I replied.

That Halloween, my little brother went as Harry Potter, with a cape, a lightning-bolt scar, and a golden broom.  No one had any clue who he was because Harry Potter books were not part of the cultural zeitgeist yet.

In any case, I was already deeply invested in a sci-fi series called Animorphs.  Animorphs was first published in 1996.  I had picked up Animorphs #2 at a large chain store (a Wal-Mart or a Target) because of the cover, which featured a blond-haired person transforming into a gray cat.  (I was blond and had a gray cat.)  I was immediately hooked.

Animorphs books were written similarly to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.  They had no pictures, but they also had large, easy-to-read sans serif fonts,  and short chapters (only a two or three pages each) with cliff-hanger endings.  This made them easy to binge-read; a single Animorphs book was usually between 100 and 200 pages, but could be read in a single day.

I was very into Animorphs, right down to having a pair of gerbils named after two of the characters.  (Elfangor and Aximili.)  The book dealt with themes I liked very much: changing into animals, having secrets, high-stakes urban guerilla warfare, alien invasions, and intense emotional stakes.

Lol, gorilla warfare.

The plot, for those not familiar with it already, is as follows.  A group of teens encounter an alien who reveals to them that another alien race is secretly invading earth.  The invading aliens, called Yeerks, are parasitic worms who crawl into people's ears and take over their bodies.  Because Yeerks interface with the brain directly, they can access people's thoughts and memories, and control the body like a puppet, leaving the host in a "locked-in" state.  There is no way to tell who is Yeerk-controlled.  The alien gives the teens the power to turn into animals and, with his dying breath, begs them to fight against the invading aliens, at least until back-up arrives.

The demographic for this book was preteens.  Despite the simple language of the book, the themes were complex and often exceptionally dark.  In Book #1, for example, after the alien dies, the teens hide and watch as a bunch of Yeerk-controlled aliens show up and eat their new friend alive.  There was a whole race of ravenous, cannibalistic termite-like aliens who would become bloodlusted and eat animals alive if they became sufficiently wounded.  That happened, like, every other book.

Here are some other nightmare highlights from the series, courtesy of Reddit:
  • There are graphic battle scenes, including such classics as Jake getting eviscerated while in the form of a tiger, and a termite alien getting severed in half and then the front half eating the back half.
  • In the first book, Tobias is imprisoned in the form of a hawk and slowly loses his own humanity, eating roadkill to survive.  When he regains the ability to turn into a human, he can no longer form human facial expressions.
  • Marco's mother faked her own death and is actually controlled by an alien.  Eventually, the kids confront her, pushing her off of a cliff to kill the alien while a sobbing Marco is held down by Jake.
  • In the form of a fly, one of the characters gets swatted and is smeared against a ceiling.
  • One of the characters almost gets trapped as a flea and when he tries to change back into a human, turns into a giant flea that begins to collapse under the weight of its own body.
  • The heroes recruit disabled kids to help them since the Yeerks have no need for disabled bodies.  The ability to morph fixes many of their disabilities but they have to continue to live their lives as disabled so that no one finds out.
  • One of the kids the Animorphs recruit turns on them, so they imprison him in the body of a rat.  For two hours, the kids sit with the rat as it begs to be let go, then abandon it on an island completely alone.  The island is rumored to be haunted because of the psychic screams of the human trapped in a rat's body.
  • One of the main heroes, Rachel, contemplates sticking a fork into the ear of another person and twisting it.  (The person is David, who is later imprisoned as a rat.)
  • One of the characters end up shrunken in her own friend's stomach and experiences her eyeballs being digested out of her head with stomach acid.
  • An alien spends a few centuries hanging from the parasitic tentacle of a much bigger alien, surrounded by millions of rotting corpses attached to its other moon-spanning tendrils. They engage in mental warfare until one finally absorbs the other completely.
  • A peaceful robot willingly removes its inhibition against violence to help in the war, only to slaughter a huge number of alien-controlled humans so gruesomely that nobody dares think about or speak of it again and it is the only thing left undescribed in a book series that already describes entrails getting torn out and skulls getting smashed.
  • The kids discover Atlantis, then discover that Atlanteans are inbred mutants who paralyze any humans they find, dissect them alive to figure out how their organs work, then stuff the corpses as kitschy museum displays for their children.
  • An ordinary ant gets transformed into a human child. It has no idea what’s happening and is so overwhelmed by its huge new brain and sensory input that it can only scream until it dies.
  • Rachel morphs into a starfish, gets split it half, and ends up as two Rachels. One is a complete psychopath. The other gets to tell the last chapter, when they get reunited, and is terrified that the bad one is a part of her again.  She cuts off her own arm and beats the first Rachel with it.
  • When the kids turn into ants or termites they are subjected to a hive mind and temporarily lose their sense of self.  Cassie  freaks out so bad she begins demorphing inside of a piece of wood.
  • One of the kids gets taken by a Yeerk and the kids tie up Jake until the living slug inside of him starves to death.  During that time, Jake is in a locked-in state with only his captor for company.
  • The alien, Ax, gets sick with a brain tumor and one of the kids does brain surgery on him in her barn using a bone saw.
  • Torture and genocide.  Like, plenty of it.
If you want more, here's a list.  And this list isn't even comprehensive.


If you're interested in reading the books as an adult, have at it, I say!  The language is incredibly simple; they are children's books and they read like children's books.  I tried to re-read them as an adult and had a hard time of it because of the simplicity of the syntax.  But if you're okay with that, then the broader themes and plots are worth it.

I also want to give credit where credit is due to the author, who did an incredible job of parsing out the scientific elements of her work.  The ability to change into animals, for example, involved the reconstruction of DNA base pairs; extra mass, which can't be destroyed or created, went to another dimension called zero-space.  Zero-space acted as a sort of interdimensional closet and also explained how aliens had the ability to go faster than the speed of light; they couldn't.  They made space jumps with z-space.  I loved that the author, K.A. Applegate, took the time to explain the how-it-worked of her books.  Too many books for middle schoolers fail to do this; K.A. Applegate never underestimated the ability of her readers, despite their age, to grapple with complex ideas or moral ambiguity.

Considering this post has, so far, been a glowing review of the Animorphs books, you might wonder why I began it by talking about Harry Potter.

The reason for this post was a recent comparison of these two authors on Facebook.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is extremely vocal on social media, and continues to generate headlines despite the fact that her book series ended back in 2007.  A vocal proponent for socially liberal ideals, J.K. Rowling has also been criticized for jumping onto nearly any bandwagon she can in order to continue to generate headlines for herself.

The first little problem we saw was when Hermione, one of Harry Potter's best friends, was cast with a black actress for a stage play.  J.K. Rowling immediately pointed out that she never specified that Hermione was white.

Except yes she did, in the third book.

Since then, J.K. Rowling has gone out of her way to insist that characters throughout her books are gay, Jewish, or black.  Never mind that she never shows us that in the books, or that her hollow excuses are transparently false.  While she maybe mentioned that three of the characters are black in passing, and there's an implication that Anthony Goldstein is Jewish, her decision that Dumbledore was gay felt very after-the-fact.

K.A. Applegate's six heroes are Jake and Rachel (Jewish), Marco (Latino), Cassie (black), Tobias, and Ax (who is an alien).  Applegate doesn't pull a Rowling and claim they're Jewish because they have Jewish names.  (Rowling famously insists her books include Jewish representation because of a single background character named Anthony Goldstein.)  Applegate's books actually show the characters interacting with their world.

The alien turns into a gender-fluid human obsessed with cinnamon buns.
God these books were so good.

One of the most interesting examples (in my opinion) is when the Animorphs begin recruiting disabled kids to their cause.  Their reasoning is sound: Yeerks seek out the best hosts and would not bother with someone with a disability.  Blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound hosts are of no use to the parasitic slugs.  The reaction of the disabled kids they try to recruit is a wonderful tapestry of humanity.  The disabled kids are presented as individuals and have individual reactions.  Some are thrilled to be recruited; others are disgusted and feel exploited.

I don't know whether Applegate's inclusion of disabled characters was an active attempt toward inclusivity, or whether it was a happy coincidence thanks to the motivation of the books' antagonists.  Either way, it was well-executed.  As a kid I never felt like any character was shoe-horned in.  It's only as an adult I've started noticing how goddamn inclusive these books were.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about Tobias (the fifth Animorph) being trans, which... doesn't really add up at all.  (I guess you could argue he's forcibly trans-hawk, since he's trapped in the body of a hawk for like 30 books.)

But K.A. Applegate, when asked, simply said she's not going to weigh in on Tobias's backstory beyond what is canonical in the books, adding that she wished she had worked harder to include more LGBT+ representation. 

This is a far cry from Rowling, who always responds to criticism about representation by throwing some darts at a board and saying, "Actually, if you read closely, [throws dart]  Dobby is actually [throws dart] Native American, and [throws dart] Hagrid is [throws dart] asexual."  She's probably received more criticism for her desperate attempts to retcon her own works than she has for the lack of representation in the first place.

And then there was the whole TERF issue.  For those not in the know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and recently, J.K. Rowling liked and responded to some Tweets on social media that suggested that trans women should not be allowed into women's prisons.  (One Tweet said that "foxes have no place in hen houses."  Implying that trans women are not only not women, but also are predatory in nature.  Baaaad.)

Then this happened:

K.A. Applegate was my favorite author as a kid.  As an adult, I see her as someone who has gracefully landed on the right side of history but without the desperate pandering that J.K. Rowling demonstrates.  And a lot of people agree.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think you HAVE to have representation in fictional works.  It's nice when it's there, but my real issue is that Rowling is trying to FORCE representation. It feels artificial.  And that isn't good representation, if it's representation at all.  Inclusivity is a wonderful thing, when it's done correctly.  And J.K. Rowling isn't doing it correctly.

Rowling was an author who grew with her works.  We watched her writing get better.  As a developing writer myself, I feel her pain.  Sometimes, you look back at your works with a slight cringe.  You think, "Why didn't I include X?  Why didn't I mentioned Y?"  When you're a writer, every work you write becomes the best work you've ever written, and earlier works get worse and worse comparatively.  It's hard, to see the flaws revealed in a beloved piece of writing you put a lot of work into.

But ultimately, Rowling needs to stop defending her old shit.  It's over.  It's done.  It's cancelled.  There's nothing more terrible than watching an insecure author interpret their own works.  It takes away the soul of the books.

Applegate, I'm happy to say, has never done this.  She has been criticized quite a lot for the ending of her books, which most fans (myself included!) hated.  She stood by the ending of the Animorphs series with her head held high, and when she was finally pressed, she not only defended the ending, but explained why she did it that way:

Bravo, Applegate.  You inspired me.  I hope I can someday defend my own works with as much grace as you have.  

Speaking of my own works, I would like to take this opportunity to give a shameless plug to what is (currently) one of the best long-form things I've ever written.  Divergence is an Iron Man novella and I'm actually pretty damn proud of it.  But I'm also aware that, as my writing matures, someday, I might look back on it and wince at the mistakes I made, either through omission or ignorance.  And that's okay, because that means I'm getting better.

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