Review of The Invasion by K.A. Applegate
by K.A. Applegate
That’s it. Review done. Go home.
What else do you want me to say? This was my series growing up. Sure, I read Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—and someone was still writing new volumes in those series, too, updated for the modern 1990s. (I’m sure there is an entire PhD thesis devoted to tracing the ways those two series have been revised and rewritten and re-released throughout the twentieth century—and if there isn’t, there should be.) But it was probably an early indicator of my lifelong love for science fiction that I fell hard for Animorphs.
I depended on my school and public libraries to furnish me with copies of these books. For some reason, the first ten books were hard to find, so I didn’t read most of them until I was well into the series. After about #17, I just started buying them. With actual money. Or with paper Chapters gift certificates. Remember those? I remember getting multiple copies of #21 for a birthday—this was the first time I learned the dangers of asking for a specific book for a present—and the excitement of going to Chapters with gift receipts and exhanging the book for sweet sweet store credit.
I remember staying up late at night with the comfortable thickness of The Andalite Chronicles and The Ellimist Chronicles and enjoying the feel of the shiny cover as I turned page after page, long after my bedtime. (I was a rebel, in my own way.)
I guess what I’m saying is that I have a lot of good childhood nostalgia about Animorphs. Now, here I am, 25 years old—and I’m going to reread them all. I’ve considered it, off and on, for a while. Coincidentally, two separate things have galvanized me to do it now: Read it and Weep, one of my favourite podcasts, just did an episode on Animorphs; and Goodreads friend Julie has embarked on her own series re-read, and I like nothing more than copying people cooler than myself. Go read her reviews!
As far as The Invasion itself goes, it sets the stage for the rest of the series. The writing is shit, of course—and this is before the Scholastic interns take over. Applegate pretty much tells instead of shows at every opportunity. I have a little more faith in the ability of children to grasp subtext (I think they can understand it, even if they don’t have the critical framework to explain it to someone else). I suspect, however, that because these were Scholastic books, they were supposed to be easy to read.
And it would be a mistake to conclude that poor writing style means poor storytelling. Even in this first book, the signs of the heights this series would attain are there.
You’ve got the main enemy: the Yeerks, pure evil brain slugs who want to snatch our bodies. No one in authority seems to know this is going on. Only five kids who happen to be around when a dying alien crash-lands his ship learn the truth.
That truth is harsh. These kids are in middle school (so, I’m assuming Grade 7 or 8). They’re just beginning to brim over with hormones and body image issues. (We could get sidetracked for hours talking about how morphing is a metaphor for body image and confidence….) And suddenly a blue deer alien with a scythe on its tail gives these kids the power to morph into any animal—but only for two hours!—but, oh by the way, you’ll need this power to stop evil aliens, and their leader’s host body can also morph. This leader, Visser Three, promptly shows up and eats the injured Andalite, Prince Elfangor, while our five protagonists watch from their hiding spots in terror.
This is what I love about children’s literature. If you did this in a movie, the MPAA would be all up in your rating, and you’d get angry letters about nightmares. But Animorphs occasionally taps into some deep, Grimm fairytale levels of darkness.
The Invasion, of course, also introduces us to the five Animorphs themselves. Jake is the viewpoint protagonist for this first book. His voice is frustratingly average-pre-teen-boyish. Already, however, we start to get a sense of the diversity in the group—and I’m not just talking about the 1990s-style, one-of-every-major-ethnicity ensemble casting that pervaded our television shows. Even this early in the series, Applegate lays the ground for exploring issues in the Animorphs’ lives that have influenced them and set them on this path to being heroes. Jake has a complex relationship with his brother Tom (who happens to be a Controller!). Cassie has grown up caring for animals. Rachel has an absent father, a mother who isn’t always there, so she shoulders a lot of responsibility for her siblings. Marco tries to use humour to hide his insecurities. And Tobias—poor Tobias—is the kid neither aunt nor uncle wants, the kid who ends up being trapped as a red-tailed hawk and is probably better off for it.
They don’t always get along. There are plenty of debates and arguments about whether they should be fighting or, as the series progresses, how they should be fighting. This is not the unified team you see in Saturday morning cartoons; there are no cheeky winks at the audience as the Animorphs team up to trounce the incompetent henchmen yet another day. The Hork-Bajir are terrifying; the Taxxons are gross but still threatening. And we haven’t even seen Visser One yet!
As far as series openers go, The Invasion is pretty intense. It raises the stakes with every chapter, not just establishing the setting and main conflict but planting seeds for subplots and story arcs galore. This series ran for over 50 books. So no matter how poorly written the dialogue and descriptions are here, I can’t fault Applegate or her editors for their vision or ability to plan ahead.
Next review I get to talk about Rachel—who is, hands down, my favourite—and the wonderful way Animorphs handles gender roles.