I’ve been on this nostalgia kick lately, playing Pokemon and working my way through the Animorphs series. You all remember those books, right? Five kids in generic small-city America stumble across an alien and are given the power to morph into any animal they touch to help them fight against alien slugs that creep into people’s brains and take over their bodies. I probably don’t know anyone who owned them all – like Goosebumps, the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, they were one of those series of books where a new one would come out every month or two, you paid like $15 for them and then finished reading them in a couple of hours. I know BSC went over a hundred books, so Animorphs was a limited run in comparison – there are 54, plus four Megamorphs books and four others – The Andalite Chronicles, The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, Visser and The Ellimist Chronicles. So, yeah, even if they were $10 each that’s over $600 for the whole series, which is not the sort of money most parents are going to blow. I had to rely on friends and the school library, and only ever read a fraction of them. With the magic of the internet*, I can finally piece together the whole story!
And what a story.
Being set in the 90s, there are some pretty hilarious anachronisms. Rachel comments at one point that a cell phone and internet access is more allowance than she’ll ever see. When they use the internet in what I think is a public e-cafe in one book, they have to wait a while for the page to load – the single image starts out quite fuzzy before clearing up (remember those?) and the whole site is just that image and a text box form submission. In one of Ax’s books he describes the internet as a relic, and contrasts it with TV, which is pervasive and immediate and transmits sound and images and text – woohoo! More subtly, there’s a discussion in a later book about how Americans don’t believe war, particularly another World War, to be a real possibility.
But you know, it’s good escapism, because who wouldn’t want that power? Maybe not to turn into insects (though the fly morph does get portrayed as pretty fun) but morphing cats, horses, dolphins, kangaroos, or the sort of wild animals they keep at The Gardens? Hell yes!
I’ll tell you something else though. Some of what’s in these books is really not the sort of shit you’d find gracing the pages of the Babysitter’s Club. Aside from the rampant slaughter of Taxxons and Hork-Bajir there’s quite a lot of human death and injury – it’s sort of a pity I haven’t been counting how many times they blithely hit someone over the head hard enough to knock them out for an extended period of time. Traumatic brain injury, anyone? There’s a lot of gore in the fighting scenes too, not to mention the psychological horror. There’s a reason they all refuse to morph ant after the first time and the experience is vividly described. When David joins them, and then proves to be too dangerous to let him remain free, they carry out a plan to trap him in rat morph – forever. At least twice one of them has to face the same fate for themselves as part of a deal with the enemy, and Tobias himself does become a nothlit early on, though he regains his morphing ability shortly after and lives reasonably contentedly as a hawk. Moral debates come up often as they agonise over whether they’re doing the right thing, in general or in specific situations, and particularly over whether they should or could kill humans – innocent non-Controllers or innocent puppets of the Yeerks. Several times they have to choose whether to save loved ones – parents, siblings – when doing so could expose them, and Jake spends the entire series living in the same house as a fairly prominent Yeerk who’s controlling his brother’s body. Ax gradually comes to realise that the race he believes to be honorable and good are very frequently not, becoming quite disillusioned and starts struggling to understand where he fits in the world. And, of course, there’s the nature of the Yeerks themselves. There’s a reason body-snatchers are a frequent trope in horror fiction; the idea of some other being controlling your body, leaving you trapped and unable to do anything but watch is a pretty horrifying one. The Yeerks are also able to rifle through your memories (with you being fully aware of it), and a couple of times it comes up that for some of them it’s an entertainment a little like home movies.
The one thing you can say is that there’s no overt sexual assault, but once you start thinking about it, you realise that even that’s part of the fear of the Yeerks. Because when one half of a couple is infested, they have to play a part even to their husband or wife (naturally no one is gay in the books), meaning this alien with no compassion or sympathy for humans using its hosts body to make a twisted mockery of the intimacy they used to share, while the host watches. In fact in one of the unnumbered books, Visser, we learn that when Visser One first came to Earth it took a woman’s body and eventually married its fellow Yeerk’s host, conceived children and carried them to term. Later it’s forced out of the host body (taking another instead), leaving the woman to raise the twins she gave birth to while trapped in her own body.
And kids were reading this! But you know what? Those kids were my age group. And while I won’t say we turned out fine, I don’t think it was the fucked up shit in YA fiction that screwed us up. I think if you made a list of things that screwed us up, dark themes in YA fiction would be a very, very long way down the list. Actually, I think that books like this were a pretty good way for us to explore some of the thorny questions in life, the difficult ethics and morals that turn out to be pretty common themes in books for teenagers. Now is the Hunger Games, before that was Harry Potter, before that was Animorphs, and before that were undoubtably countless others. And every time something new became big, there were probably adults looking at them and wondering why the hell kids were reading this appallingly gruesome stuff.
*A note on legalities here – I fully disclose that I got these as ebooks off the internet at no cost. This was actually a few years ago. The books were out of print, and there were no ebooks to buy, so if you wanted to read them you had to either buy the books secondhand or find a download of text conversions, often riddled with errors (the program that gets used a lot sometimes mistakes letters in the text). Either way, Scholastic wasn’t going to get any money. More recently it was announced that they may be bringing the books out as ebooks for sale, and the place I got them took the files down accordingly, as piracy is far less justifiable when you can legally get the material from the copyright holder.