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January 12, 2012

Those Wacky Yeerks

So over the past month, I spent some time at my grandma's house.  My family's visits to Beaumont have their perks and downsides.  The downsides include no internet, being forced to share a room with my brother (who refuses to go to sleep at a reasonable time), and of course hearing my grandma's catch phrases: "Huh?" and "I don't know what you're saying."  Because you haven't lived until you've tried to explain the plot of James Cameron's Avatar to a 93-year-old woman who has trouble discerning if you're saying "yes" or "no."

But there IS a certain perk that makes it worthwhile.  See, a few years ago I took a certain step to make sure that -- even in the absence of the internet, or ready access to the video game console of my choice vis a vis limited space for packing -- I have something to keep me busy.  This, of course, was long before I had my laptop, and as I recall even before I had a Nintendo DS; in other words, something that I could use even without voltage running through it.

Books.  A handful of Animorphs books, to be exact, to be nestled between a pair of bookholders near my bed in Beaumont.  At the time, it seemed like a sound strategy: it had been a while since I'd read them, but they were too precious to just throw away.  Bringing them to Beaumont -- and then, sacreligious as it may sound, LEAVING them there -- would ensure that I could relive some fine memories every now and then.  I could blast through a full installment in a night, relive the good old days, and come time to return home I'd leave them there in the archive.  Then, whenever we'd return, I'd have my old friends waiting for me.  Friends that I hadn't read in ages, given new life and new merit by virtue of inaccessibilty.

It was the perfect strategy.  Too perfect, in fact.  Because this time around, when I cracked open Animorphs #22: The Solution, I found more than a little nostalgia, or a little entertainment.  I realized that there was a reason why I loved the series so much; why I refused to give my copies away; why, even as I type this, I still have roughly half the series nestled in a shoebox a foot away from me.

Animorphs is just too good.  

Suspect 3D effects aside.

If you're reading this, chances are you know the drill.  If you don't, fire up that ol' Google search engine and do some research.  But for now, here's an abridged version: five kids meet a dying alien.  Alien reveals that "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is more or less a true story going on at that very moment.  Said alien gives said kids the power to become any animal they touch.  Kids take up arms (occasionally bear arms) to fight against the alien invaders.  Cinnamon buns are eaten liberally.  Brilliance ensues.

Okay, I'll admit that the writing mechanics behind it aren't the greatest.  Single-line paragraphs are abused to the point of annoyance.  Even for (what is arguably) a children's book, things can get a little too bare bones.  And do I have to hear what a "thermal" is in every single blasted book?  If I could remember from month-to-month what a thermal was when I was nine, I think that it's safe to say other children could, too.

But those complaints are just a trifle compared to what's on display, and with incredible consistency.  Yeah, the books made it into my hands when I was nine, but if I was a parent, I would have banned my children from reading them until they were nineteen.  The themes within are so complex and of that "shades of gray" mentality that even now, I find myself appreciating the series for being so brazen (and despite my hypothetical censorship, I have to give credit to K.A. Applegate for rightfully assuming that children aren't stupid and can handle a little grit).  Frickin' guerrilla warfare spearheaded by thirteen-year-olds!  Mere teenagers, losing their innocence!  Character arcs that turn boys into remorseful leaders and girls into bloodthirsty warriors!  And some of the most nightmarish moments I've ever read in fiction...some of which occur in THE VERY FIRST BOOK.  I can't help but wonder if parents knew what they were buying their children every month; I'd bet good money that mine sure didn't, or else we'd be having a discussion on what to do if any of us had our brains violated by gooey conquistadors from beyond the Milky Way. Or if I spent two hours in a morph and now had to live out the rest of my days as a cockatiel.  I imagine they'd want me to still use the toilet to poop.

Animorphs, I think, has a key component of what makes a story great -- one of several, but one nonetheless.  And that, my friends, is BALANCE.  It strikes a harmony between action, comedy, and drama.  Action, with fights, escapes, exploration, and that old standby, debates.  Comedy, with banter, the unexpected, wild reactions, and some just plain random stuff (see: cinnamon buns).  Drama, with character arcs/development, internal conflict, relationships, and just plain raising the stakes as needed.  They all get their time at bat, and they all do well consistently; it's like they hit a home run, the baseball sails out of the park and over a field goal in another stadium, then on its way down plummets into yet another stadium for a three-pointer.  (Or in this case, million-billion pointer).  The point is, the tradeoff between these three so smoothly and effortlessly makes for compelling reading; the action keeps things moving and exciting, but doesn't let things get too mindless or shallow. The comedy lightens the mood, but doesn't reach a point where it detracts from the seriousness.  The drama adds that all-important gravitas, but the interplay of the other two aspects act as a safeguard against taking a suicide dive into the deep end of the Emo Pool.

But you know what?  Even with that balance in place, I doubt that's the reason I keep reading, and re-reading, and re-re-re-reading the books.  It's because of the characters.  Five -- and rather quickly, six -- heroes who are so complex and malleable that I can't help but want to read on.  I want to see what they'll do.  I want to see how they'll react.  I want to see them triumph whenever it's their turn to narrate.

Back when I was (more of) a kid, Tobias was my favorite character, and it reached a point where I tried to pen my own fanfiction with him as the star.  While it didn't pan out -- blame my Nintendo 64 and a healthy amount of blueberry muffins -- my fanaticism didn't dull in the slightest.  I mean, come on!  He was a kid shuffled from one family member to another AND a bully magnet before his call to destiny...and then, was the first of the original five to decide wholeheartedly to fight against the invading Yeerks.  He gets trapped in the form of a red-tailed hawk from the end of the first book on, and forgoes his humanity to live the life of a raptor with all the implications that follow -- among them, occasionally being forced to eat roadkill.  He becomes the virtual messiah of a race of dinosaur-like aliens as dictated by a quasi-divine entity who can sneeze reality apart.  And...uh...did I mention he's a bird?

So yeah, I think Tobias is a pretty cool guy.  But then, after I looked through the series again years later, I started to feel differently.  "What if," I said to myself while nursing a bruised knee after tumbling in P.E. class, "what if Tobias wasn't actually the coolest character, but the leader, Jake?"  Ignoring the fact that I was reminiscing about Animorphs while blinking back tears after failing to perform a lay-up in front of the class, my hypothesis held water.  Being a leader isn't easy, and I feel no envy for anyone who holds authority over others; Animorphs' Jake is no exception; seeing him transform from a reluctant freedom fighter into a pillar of stability for the team -- and more to the point, a manipulator who used his friends' strength to their advantage -- was a sight to see.

A shame he never got around to waging war on shoes.

At least, for my present-day brain.  Part of the reason I think Animorphs was secretly intended for older audiences (under the guise of appealing to children because, let's face it, there's no better market to tap than children who'll badger their parents for anything) is because the depth of these children is STAGGERING.  So much so that as of late, I'm starting to think that maybe Rachel is the coolest Animorph.  From her first morph to battles twenty books later, it's blatantly obvious that she's enjoying the war -- something that both excites her and scares her.  Bear in mind that this is a thirteen-year old girl who's into gymnastics and shopping at the mall.  Her arc is just so appealing that you can't help but wonder, "Okay, Rachel, you nearly stabbed a kid with a fork and threatened to go after his family.  Where are you going next, little lady?"  The point is, as important as it is to have balance and depth and a wealth of good ideas, it's all for nothing if you don't have some righteous characters to keep it all going.  In that regard, Animorphs is a success.  No matter what your opinion, or your preference, or whether you prefer cynicism to idealism, there's a character in there for you; and, it's the interplay of these characters that at times is even more important than fighting brain slugs.

So in case my starry-eyed gushing wasn't clear, I really like Animorphs...which is all the more jarring, since my collection -- and by extension, my knowledge of future developments in the story -- is incomplete.  I only own about 28 of the books; my parents apparently got sick of shuffling to the bookstore every month, so they cut me off.  But it's no matter; as the series that inspired me to become a writer (or at least strive to become someone worthy of saying "I'm a writer"), it's my mission in life to collect the rest of the series and finish them off in one marathon run.

It's the least I can do.  After all, Animorphs taught me so much...like the power of oatmeal.

And the value of turning into a tiger to fight lava monsters.

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