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Book Review: Animorphs

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on September 26, 2016

If you lived through the 90s and ever, even in passing, visited a library then you are likely to remember the Animorphs. Animorphs posters were everywhere, there was a fairly terrible television show and the distinctive cover images of a person phasing across into an animal were one of the iconic pieces of art of that time period.

Many publishers wanted to cash in on what Goosebumps had achieved, that constant stream of short but beloved children’s books that were purchased as numbered serials. There were a few other horror contenders, including Point Horror, but most of them missed that vital balance of fun to fear, of silliness to dread. Especially Point Horror which many children picked up expecting a story on par with evil giant hamsters and were instead treated to a ghost trying to steal a child’s body and murder their family. Slight tonal differences like that, combined with the unique talents of R L Stine, precluded much success in that area for many years.

But there were other genres to explore and exploit, The Babysitter’s Club represented what is now known as Women’s Fiction in the teenage and pre-teen arena and Animorphs addressed science fiction. It would no doubt have been easy to produce an identical system of one off short stories in the science fiction genre but there is a high degree of risk involved as what your loyal readers fixate on may be completely absent from the next tale. K A Applegate elected instead to tell a single ongoing story from the perspective of several different children. In the end the series closed out at sixty two books, excluding choose your own adventure style spin-offs that existed outside of continuity.

The real question that I hope to answer for you is, are these books worth revisiting? If you are an adult who read them as a child, probably not, but if you are reading them to children of your own you might be shocked at the depths that these seemingly light-hearted stories plumbed over their course.

The plot was relatively straightforward for an avid science fiction fan in their pre-teens, brain parasite aliens were invading the planet and only by waging a secret war against them could a small group of kids who had been granted the amazing power to transform into different animals by alien technology save all life on Earth from subjugation. Add into the mix science fiction standards such as god-like aliens and bizarre alien biologies and you would have had a solid enough story to keep the readers permanently hooked. It is a testament to the love that the creator had for this series that it tries to do so much more.

Rather than the story being a jolly adventure, the protagonists are constantly suffering. From personal losses, paranoia about who among even their closest friends and family may be infected and later from the psychological harm that afflicts any soldier, especially a child that was shanghaied into a conflict that they had no part in making. The development of the characters over the series and the personal conflicts that they experience overshadow the aliens, animal transformations and psuedo-magical science. Like real life that development often happens in completely unpredictable ways, the quiet recluse becomes a stoic hero, the comic relief becomes a broken husk and the perfectly well adjusted and popular athlete transforms into a bloodthirsty general, willing to sacrifice human lives for a chance to bloody the enemy’s nose.

These are books about war and what it does to people. Just because the war is fought by giant centipedes and centaur aliens doesn’t mean that the emotional impact is lessened, although it may make it easier to stomach, especially for younger readers.

The Animorphs books are for children more than the more flexible new Young Adult section, but they address adult issues in a way that children can relate to. In these characters they can see themselves, their own struggles and traumas and their own strength in the face of adversity. Also, they can see people turning into sharks and biting evil aliens to death. The books are fun, accessible and probably pretty cheap to pick up if you were so inclined.

    G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More