My name is Cassie.
I can’t tell you my last name. The Yeerk danger is too great. There are days when it feels like a noose slowly tightening around my neck. There are days when I don’t feel like I can trust anyone. But as long as they don’t know for sure who I am, maybe my friends and I can stay alive. Maybe.
I know that Animorphs isn’t actually not that “obscure” and therefore may not belong in the Obscure Books From Childhood blog series. But it left a massive impression on me as a kid, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
My discovering of the Animorphs series was totally a case of judging a book by its cover. I remember going into my public library and seeing the spinning rack that held the paperbacks for the teenagers, although it wasn’t labeled as such. (There wasn’t a separate Young Adult (YA) section in those days.) I was probably about 8 or 9 at the time and really into horses. So when I saw that the cover of Animorphs #14: The Unknown featured a girl shape shifting into a horse, I was immediately intrigued. At that age, I was less concerned about jumping into the middle of a series, so I didn’t care that it was #14, and at that time, most long-running middle grade books featured the same characters but in stand-alone books, so you didn’t need to begin at the beginning.
Fortunately for me, Animorphs features an engaging recap in the voice of the featured character, so there was no chance for me to get lost. I knew everything I needed to understand the premise of the series in the first four pages. And even though every book has a similar recap, the voices of the characters are distinct and each presentation is both different and engaging while never forgetting any significant information.
The premise is that the Earth is being invaded by a parasitic race of alien slugs called Yeerks that can slither inside a living creature’s head and take control of them. The only thing standing in their way is a group of 13-year-old kids who are given the power to morph by another dying alien, an Andalite named Elfangor. This power allows Jake, Rachel, Marco, Cassie, and Tobias to absorb DNA from living creatures and then transform into that animal. Later they are joined by another Andalite, Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill (“Ax”) who is stranded on Earth after his ship crashes. The six of them must keep their powers and identities a secret while carrying on a desperate guerrilla war against overwhelming odds.
Animorphs is an intense series that deals with issues far more mature than the fun-looking covers would suggest. Each book is narrated in first person by a different main character, giving a wide range of reactions and experiences as the series progressed. It explores issues of chronic stress, trauma, war crimes, dehumanization, sacrifice, the price of freedom, responsibility, matters of life and death, and morality in war. These books don’t shy away from these things and do not glorify the battles these kids have to fight or underplay the serious choices they have to make. While some characters may enjoy the adrenaline rush of battle, there are always consequences afterwards, and even they can burn out.
But on a more positive side, these books also introduced a fascinating world of what it would be like to become a wolf or a hawk or a cockroach, with all of the advantages and drawbacks such forms and instincts bring with them. Some morphs are fantastic fun while others are difficult or very disturbing. But it really feels like you get inside the heads of these animals, ranging from ants to elephants to some of the more exotic aliens like the bladed Hork-Bajir or the ravenous Taxxons. Adding to this diversity is the cast itself: while Jake and Rachel are white, Marco is described as being of Latin American descent while Cassie is black. (Tobias is technically white as well, but as he spends most of the series as a red-tailed hawk, so I don’t think that quite counts.) And of course Ax is a literal alien with his own perspective and way of interacting with the human world.
In short, Animorphs is one of the most iconic book series of the 1990s and deserves the attention and accolades. While not every adventure or book is of stellar quality (with 54 main books and 10 companion books it’s hard not to have a few duds), the overall quality and pacing makes for excellent reading. I highly recommend them. Just rereading #14 for this OBFC entry makes me want to reread the entire series. (However, I advise you to steer clear of the 1998 Nickelodeon TV series. The graphics and budget of the time were not up to the task of bringing Animorphs to life. But in June 2020, Scholastic announced that a live-action film is in the works, so we’ll see where that leads…)