All avid readers know the books they loved most as children. It’s like asking someone about their first pet or first kiss – what was your first favorite book?
Like most people, I can easily go back and rattle off half a dozen different books I absolutely adored when I was younger. Alanna by Tamora Pierce was hugely influential on me. But while I’d say Tamora Pierce’s writing was a huge influence, she wasn’t the one that got me hooked on reading. She wasn’t even the one that got me interested in the impossible. I couldn’t pinpoint the book that got me hooked, but I know the series that tempted me into science fiction and fantasy.
To be honest, I initially felt a bit silly going back to the Animorphs books. These books are… out there, I guess. Even as a kid, I don’t think I knew anyone else who read them. Our little community liked Goosebumps better, which I never got into. But I loved Animorphs. I’ve always been excited by the strange and unusual, the unbelievable and brilliant when it comes to books. The childhood book that influenced me the most was Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander… if I had to pick a series, it was far and away Animorphs.
Okay, wait, hold on a second. Hear me out.
Animorphs is a series co-written by Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant about five kids and an alien who received a gift allowing them to turn into an animal once they touched that animal and acquired their DNA. Why did they receive this power? To help the Andalites stop the Yeerks (a brain controlling alien parasite species) from taking over the universe.
I think I’m either losing you, or you also read this series back in the 90s.
I never, never stopped thinking about the Animorphs books. I could talk about how I loved Rachel’s strength and Cassie’s kindness, but ultimately, I was in love with this series because it opened up a whole new world of imagination for me. Back in the day, there were a lot of series that, in format, were like Animorphs. Scholastic put out series that were twenty, forty books long. I read The Babysitter’s Club and The Saddle Club too. Series like this don’t exist anymore so it’s challenging to describe the delight and anticipation of these paperbacks. The addictive quality of the series may be, in part, why I read so many or why I remember them to this day.
The point is, I do remember them. I remember the formula of them – the enemy beneath our streets, the hope that this group of friends could save everyone. I remember that they characters all had a past of some sort that influenced them, and I remember that each person brought a different skill to the team. I remember the good and bad of their friendship. After reading Animorphs, I began to expect more dynamic books – books where the good guy didn’t always win and where even the heroes had to face consequences. I discovered that special abilities should have rules to make them more interesting and to raise story tension.
You know what’s remarkable? To this day, I find some of the plot lines in the Animorphs books more compelling and believable than modern YA. Sure, they can be predictable at times, but they aren’t always. The lines between good and evil were messy in these books, and the plot was aided by the ticking one-hour transformation limit. Sure, the covers are cheesy and it’s a bit miraculous that all the existing copies haven’t fallen to pieces (I have the first five myself, but I’d like to get the rest). The storyline may seem ridiculous and I cannot deny that the writing style is geared toward younger readers. Somehow, beyond the nostalgia, the Animorphs series still manages to be good.
I know. I was surprised as you are back when I reread The Invasion. I thought for sure that my memory was deceiving me. It wasn’t. I was still absolutely delighted. Thirty-year-old me travelled back in time and high-fived ten-year-old me for having excellent taste in books. And I think the elements I mentioned above – the dynamic characters, the untraditional urban sci-fi world, the fogginess between good and evil and personal responsibility and the good of the many vs. the good of the few – all add to the appeal.
When I reviewed The Invasion in 2020, I didn’t argue vehemently enough for the surprising timelessness of these books. Despite their intended audience and the cheesy transformation illustrations on the covers, Animorphs remains a stellar example of what a good book can be when the element are balanced, consequences are delivered, and there’s a worthy goal at the center of the story. It’s even more impressive knowing that series like Animorphs had strict deadlines and the expectation to produce dozens of stories just as addictive as the next.
For myself, when I write, I hope I can deliver something even half as compelling. And when someone is absolute worst, I wonder if a Yeerk’s gotten to them. Because sometimes we wish and wonder that even the most outlandishly delightful and interesting of stories could be real.
Which (if any) serial series did you read as a kid? Even though I know these sorts of things aimed at children and middle schoolers, I miss the excitement of a new short book every month in the mail! Tell me all about your favorite Scholastic (or similar) series in the comments.