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The girl in the bear; Stand aside Hobbits, go back to your chocolate factory Willy Wonka, oh-oh you Tellytubbies. The Animorphs have arrived. Claire Armitstead on the transforming power of a new craze


Posted 02/12/99

The Guardian (London)
01/23/99
By Claire Armitstead
Page 10

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COMMENTARY
Brief mention of Xena in a review of the Animorphs series (my son is also a severe animorphs fan). The reviewer describes the chcratcer Rachel as "She looks like a supermodel, her favourite hobby is shopping, but she has the fearlessness of Xena: Warrior Princess."

PRIMARY SOURCE

    Epping Forest is a good place to morph. I know, because I've just spent a
day there watching a gaggle of shrieking children become flies and lions and
bears and finally - with a little help from the wintry sludge - newts.

    Morphing, you understand, is the the weapon that may one day save the world.
It is a secret passed on to humanity by a dying prince from a far more
sophisticated life-form from beyond Z-space. Andalites are mouthless creatures
with the bodies of deer, and four eyes on a human head. They would be cute, but
for their lethal scorpion tails.  

    Welcome to the world of Animorphs, a rolling series of children's novels,
which will reach volume 13 next month. In the US - according to scattered
Animorph Internet sites - they're on volume 24 and counting. In a screed of
Internet correspondence with her young fans, their author, K A Applegate
(Katherine to her friends) reveals that she's been signed up for some 60
volumes.

    Now, I consider myself to be pretty immune to the latest children's fad. In
the last couple of years I've heroically resisted the kitsch appeal of
Tellytubbies and the throat-grabbing tactics of that other multi-volume kids'
blockbuster, Goosebumps. But the Animorphs have got me in a way that only
Tolkien's hobbits or C S Lewis's Narnian adventurers have done before. More
interestingly, my eight-year-old son is also an addict - and everyone these days
knows that boys don't read books. They specially don't read books that can also
appeal to their mothers and little sisters.

    It was peer pressure that started it. His nine-year-old friend initiated him
in the summer holidays, enticing him to put the Gameboy to one side and huddle
in corners with stories instead. Soon he was hooked. At first he could get by on
one chapter a night. Then it became two, three, sometimes even four. By autumn
half-term he would have been happy to spend all day at it. Now it's become part
of his banter with his friends (along with goal averages and yo -yos) - hence
the Animorph party in Epping forest.

    So what is the appeal of these new books? The simple answer is that
Animorphs are a cleverly constructed synthesis of a number of popular
ingredients. They blend science fiction with the group identity kick of The
Famous Five and then throw in some hip eco-awareness. Jake, Cassie, Rachel,
Marco and Tobias want to save whales, dolphins, skunks and, well, yeah, the
whole planet. The enemy they fight is literally the enemy within: the Yeerks -
sluglike colonists which slither in through the ears of their hosts and wrap
themselves around their brains. The captured creatures (hey, your older brother
might be one; your teacher certainly is) become 'controllers' - helpless
executors of the Yeerk will.

    Since there is no outward manifestation of the presence of a Yeerk, this
provides the ultimate justification for adolescent paranoia: now the youths know
that the adult world is out to get them. It's probably too early to make any
long-term assessment of the side-effects of Animorphs. It does seem, though,
that there's a real risk of children learning more about the natural world,
about power and the control of technologies.

    Here is an adventure epic that takes the trouble to create a whole, credible
universe - a universe which, for all its episodic format, its frequent plot
recaps and its easy-to-read-shiny-paperback packaging is as enchanting and
sophisticated as any contained within the dog-eared hardbacks of my childhood.

    Like Tolkien, Applegate creates a mythology that can be nerdishly learned
and cross-referenced, but which also has the appeal of true populist fable. Her
Web correspondence with her readers reveals something else: an unashamed
emphasis on the traditionally female preserve of empathy. One of the Animorphs,
Tobias, has become stuck in the morph of a red-tailed hawk. How did she know
what it feels like to be a red-tailed hawk? She went to a raptor centre and
watched how they behaved, then she imagined. Among the fantasies of catching the
wind currents on powerful wings, there are some shrewd observations. Cassie, the
environmentalist of the group, sets off on a mission to save a nest of baby
skunks left alone while their mother recovers from an encounter with a Dracon
beam. How does she find them? By making use of Tobias's extra-senstive hawk
eyes, of course. Only one problem. Tobias, being a hawk, has already gobbled one
of them up. This salty little interchange weaves into a bigger, running story
about the sentimentalising of nature. 'I have been more animals than many people
ever see in a lifetime,' says Cassie. 'And everything I've been, every animal,
is either killer or killed.' Cassie herself, when morphed into a termite, finds
she has to kill the queen to survive. The episode is described in a flurry of
prose which allows you to know the killing is happening without seeing it.
Termites, you see, don't see in any human sense.

    There's a fluidity in the identities of the Animorphs that cleverly extends
into the realm of gender. Rachel, the other girl in the group, is a paradox. She
looks like a supermodel, her favourite hobby is shopping, but she has the
fearlessness of Xena: Warrior Princess. Her favourite morphs are large powerful
animals like grizzly bears. Marco, the joker of the pack, is the most clearly
macho but he's also cast as a carer - looking after his bereaved, inadequate
father. And of all the narrators, it is he who is allowed to dwell most on his
reluctance to fight, his fears and his aversion to many of the yuckier morphing
experiences.

    On another level, too, the experience of Animorphs escapes the confines of
both gender and genre. It's nerdy sci-fi, it's an eco-drama, but there are also
hints of teen romance. Most of the books have a single narrator, but some -
Megamorphs - pick up the conventions of Internet fanfic by using a different
voice for each chapter. The fun of the books - and the reason they have such
broad appeal - is precisely this cheerful misegenation of the structural
conventions of plot or character. What they offer is the chance to draw into
some imaginative relationship a sense of how things are with a sense of how
things might be. I guess that's pretty much what all good fiction should do.

    The Animorphs Series is published by Scholastic. The next two to be
published are Animorphs 13: The Change (February), and Animorphs 14: The Unknown
(March).

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