K. A. Applegate
(and ghost writers)
Anyone growing up in the nineties will remember the plethora of adolescent pulp novels published by Scholastic, and the paper hand-outs that had everything up for order. The series that comes most readily to mind is the “Goosebumps” horror series. But hopefully there are a lot of you out there who are the right age to remember K. A. Applegate’s sci-fi series called “Animorphs”.
The animorphs are a group of five kids, just entering high school, that encounter a dying alien warrior who tells them about the invasion of the Yeerks, a parasitic alien slug that takes over a person’s brain. To fight them, the warrior gives them a great technology – the power to become any animal they touch. The animal morphers use the power to stay incognito and try to slow the advancement of the Yeerk invasion on Earth, along with the younger brother of the warrior who gave them the morphing power, and some other, stranger allies.
Each novel of the 54 core novels (except for the last) is told from the point of view of one of the six, with four longer “Megamorphs” novels that are narrated by all of them, and four Chronicles-style novels that deal largely with events that happen before the core series begins. Each character has a personal struggle that defines him or her and how he or she tells the story:
Jake is the unofficial leader of the animorphs, and every mission he has to make decisions that could get his friends killed, and he doesn’t always make the right choice. Moreover, his older brother Tom is controlled by a Yeerk…
Cassie is the “nice one”: she loves animals and hates violence, but the animorphs are in a war. Cassie has to come to terms with killing and hurting in order to save others, especially her friends.
Marco is the funny one, and his novels are probably the most light-hearted. In his words, he sees the “bright, clear line,” the fastest, easiest way to get something done, without all the morality in between. He’s not a bad guy, or even mean, but he can see what has to be done and how to do it. When I was younger, Marco’s novels were my favorites to read.
Tobias is probably the heaviest narrator. Tobias gets trapped in a hawk body, forced to live and eat as a predator in an uncaring wilderness. But Tobias didn’t come from a good home in the first place. Tobias has to maintain his sense of humanity. Tobias’ novels were my least favorite.
Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill – AKA “Ax” is the younger brother of the warrior who started it all. Ax lives in the shadow of his brother, and he’s alone as the only one of his kind on Earth. And his species, the Andalites, aren’t always as good as Ax believed they were. Ax’s novels can be awkward at times.
Finally, Rachel is the most tragic of the animorphs, and after reading through the novels again, she is my favorite. Rachel is not a good person. She loves the fighting, the violence. She is reckless in battle, vicious to the Yeerks; the other animorphs are even a little afraid of her. When difficult, morally questionable things have to be done, Rachel is the one they turn to. But for all that, she doesn’t actually want to be that way – she scares herself. She wants so much to be a Good Guy like Cassie, but she knows she isn’t. Everyone has some gut-wrenching moments throughout the novels, but I find Rachel’s to be the strongest.
So, after devoting a couple months to reading through all sixty-four books in the series, what meaningful thing can I say about them, other than that they’re good? They’re fantastic! When I was younger I liked them because I was a boy reading about aliens and lasers and turning into animals, and it was cool. But I found that I still really enjoyed them, even nearly two decades after the first one was published.
Let me take a moment to mention that I hate pulp fiction with a fiery passion, for a number of reasons, the greatest of which is that Sci-Fi pulp fiction is largely responsible for the negative stereotypes that define how many people see Sci-Fi. It isn’t good, they believe; unworthy of serious critical thinking. They think this because for a long time it was true. All genres in pulp fiction were bad, that was the point (it was cheap, easy to write, easy to read), but Sci-Fi pulp was the worst (just think about the B-level movies that the SYFY channel plays). And really, that in and of itself is another reason to dislike pulp fiction – just because it’s bad. Call me a snob, because I really am one, but I expect my literature to be worthwhile.
Back to the “Animorphs” then: these books are good. The characters have true depth and real struggles on the personal level. The action is entertaining, the prose is well-written, and the setting is imaginative and detailed. And they take me about forty-five minutes to read. They aren’t dense, they aren’t Shakespeare or Dostoyevski, they were sold in flimsy paper catalogues given out for free to elementary school children and written to be digestible to that audience. But they’re still really good.
The “Animorphs” represent for me a response to pulp fiction that says you can be a light, easy-to-read writer and still include every bit of character development as any other genre. It’s something I can hold high and say, Yes, I spent two months reading a series written for 5th graders and it made me cry at parts because the characters and plot are so compelling.
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