The Guardian (London)
By Claire Armitstead
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."
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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