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Children's Book Series That Should Not Be Missed: 'Animorphs,' by K.A. Applegate

#17, 'The Underground'

My name is Laura. I can't tell you who I am or where I live, but I can tell you this: I know of a fantastic book series by K.A. Applegate--published between 1997 and 2001--that defined childhoods and encouraged young readers all over the world.

Now, for those of you who may not be aware of the tagline that began almost all of the books, that was a slightly unusual way to open an article. (Especially considering that I have an author's bio just a click away.) For those of you who know the series? Your hearts leapt. It was that good.

Spanning over sixty books that generally ran from 100 - 200 pages, Animorphs originally followed the stories of five relatively ordinary human kids who are thrust into an extraordinary situation. A dying alien called Elfangor lands his spaceship in an abandoned construction site through which the kids are walking on their way home from the mall. As if this weren't traumatic enough, Elfangor--an Andalite warrior--informs them that an alien species called the Yeerks was covertly invading the planet, controlling human hosts by crawling into their ears and taking over their brains. Even worse, there were no good guys on Earth to combat the problem. On the verge of death, the alien gives these five human children a weapon to help them fight the Yeerks, granting them the ability to "morph" into any animal that they touch for two hours at a shot. The premise may sound a little silly, but--considering that this reviewer was able to provide this (edited for length!) summary from memory more than a decade after the fact--it is presented in such a way as to be logically acceptable.

The books ultimately focus on six characters, each of which has a distinct voice and personality. There was responsible Jake, reckless Rachel, tortured Tobias, moral Cassie, funny Marco, and...Ax. All 54 of the regular series installments are narrated by one of the six, with a handful of peripheral special editions featuring multiple and alternate narrators. Still, unlike other lengthy children's book series, Animorphs is not comprised of 54 completely standalone novels; rather, each connects to the others, providing plot consistency, escalation, and significant character development. Most can be read individually with no problem, but all follow a consistent thematic structure. Of course, there are exceptions to single-book format. For those reading back in real time, there was an interminable few months in the fall of 1999 in which we endured the waiting period between the releases of the installments of the first trilogy of the series. One remarkable aspect of Applegate's contributions is that she did not write to please her readers. Protagonists made ugly decisions. Characters developed for the worse. The heroes were not always heroic. Readers are still divided over the series' conclusion.

Yes, the books are dated. Yes, there are some plotlines--mostly involving technology and late 90s pop culture--that really only make sense with awareness of the context. Yes, as with many forms of entertainment produced before the 21st century, a lot of problems could have been solved with the availability of a cell phone. Yes, there is a fair amount of violence and adult themes. Yes, there were a few clunkers. But was this a fantastic series that encouraged kids to read, teaching them about animals and humanity and vocabulary? Absolutely. The innocent romances were frankly adorable (and heartbreaking) to follow, and the conflicts--both alien and domestic--resonate even today. The Animorphs books are certainly worth the read--or reread--or re-reread--and they will be as memorable now as they were in the late 1990s.

The Animorphs books are available for purchase or download here and here.

(The Animorphs television show is not really available anywhere, but that's probably a good thing. Aside from an awesome theme song, the Nickelodeon program was mostly an embarrassment. Stick with the books. Seriously.)

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