I read a lot.
Some people say that to sound sophisticated. You know the type. They normally tell you that they don’t watch TV, and snort derisively while pushing their bifocals up to their brow when you let slip that you know who Holly Willoughby is.
I am certainly not that type, although I do read compulsively. Books for sure, but also comics, magazines, cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, the warnings stamped on batteries, and the Reader’s Digest.
But the thing that I return to most often, the thing that causes my bookshelf to creak and deform like Brian Blessed in a leather catsuit, is a children’s book series: Animorphs, by K A Applegate.
I was a tweenager in school when the series came out in 1996. We used to have a sort of roadshow where Scholastic would bring a truck loaded with bookshelves and dump them into our poorly-stocked school library. We’d be taken in a class at a time to read them. It wasn’t just a tease, though, as the books were for sale.
I was scanning the shelves like The Terminator looking for a motorcycle when I came across Animorphs. I loved two things when I was kid and two things only: animals, and things that transform. So it was pretty obvious from the title what we were dealing with. I snatched it up.
The cover was refreshing – a deep blue, with the word “ANIMORPHS” embossed at the top. I ran my finger over the title, and flipped the book over. The blurb, written in a sort of first person ‘diary’ style like the book itself, told of an alien invasion. A parasite species was enslaving the human race, stealing our very bodies. We’re all in danger, it said, and only five kids with the power to turn into animals can save us. I bought the book and read it as soon as I got home.
Life was never quite the same after that. I was an Animorphs nut! I bought pretty much every book, although they became very scarce as the millennium approached. I ended up getting most of them from bargain bins and the like.
Anyway, I’m not here to preach about the story or the characters. You don’t care about that. I’m here to tell you why a grown man sits up late at night, reading children’s fiction by the light of the moon. Well, that’s a lie. I actually have a My Little Pony nightlight, but that’s besides the point.
What has kept me hooked on these books for nearly two decades is just how real they are. The characters are normal people like you and I. The aliens are absurd enough to be realistic, unlike Star Trek where an alien is just John De Lancie in spandex.
Everything is explained, there’s no technobabble or suspension of disbelief required. It’s a little like Jurassic Park – when that film came out, we all pretty much believed that it could happen. The ideas presented were based on real science, and at no time did you feel that you were being treated like an idiot.
But most of all, what I mean when I say the books are “real” is this; the kids deal with being given that sort of power exactly how you or I would deal with it. Badly.
They get torn up by fear, guilt and anger. They feel sad and frustrated. Outnumbered and alone. As the series goes on, the cracks begin to show. The kids get old and jaded. Desperate and dangerous.
There are lots of little things to deal with, too. It’s not like an action movie or a comic book. Turning into animals to fight aliens comes with a hell of a lot of drawbacks. For example, the kids can’t really morph clothing. They learn to morph shorts and leotards, but that’s not enough to go walking around in. And what about shoes? As well as being conspicuous, it’s completely impractical to walk around barefoot. The shoe problem crops up again and again.
The morphing itself is complicated and nightmarish – it’s a protracted and terrifying process whereby the morpher’s body melts and forms in illogical, bizarre ways into a new shape. They can’t just choose an animal or use the power of imagination, either. Morphing an animal requires that you get its DNA through touch.
For pigeons and bunny rabbits that’s fine, but how do you go about touching a tiger, or a grizzly bear?
The Animorphs have to choose wisely which animals they morph – if you morph a fly, you get swatted. If you morph a fish, you better hope you get gills before you drown. Fall down a hole or get trapped as a small animal? You’re dead. Morphing back to human in such a tight space would be suicide. They also have to be wary of how they behave in animal form. It sounds simple at first – Morph a dog or a cat, and go spy on some aliens. But people would notice if you went skulking around like Spy Dog, or showed even the faintest flicker of understanding in your canine eyes.
Then there’s the time limit – stay for more than two hours in a morph, you stay forever. One of the main characters is trapped as a bird very early on, and has no choice but to live in a tree. It’s harsh, and he struggles to maintain his humanity, ultimately ending up as a tormented freak of nature, neither a bird with the mind of a boy, or a boy with the body of a bird.
It gives me a lot to think about. We’ve all wanted to be Spiderman or Batman or whatever. We’ve all wished for super powers – to fly through the sky like Superman. Be indestructible like Wolverine. But to me that’s always seemed like having your cake and eating it too.
Animorphs makes me think about what would actually happen if that wish came true – if I really could turn into animals; the nightmares that would come, the danger and terror such a weapon would bring.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love it.
“Bookshelves and dump”