The Animorphs series is many things over its 54+ book run. At times it is moving, heart-wrenching in its portrayal of the cost of war. At times it is humorous, heart-warming in its depictions of compassion in the face of hatred and misunderstanding.
At times it reaches into very dark places and confronts us with images that sear themselves into your soul.
I’m not trying to be dramatic. Well, maybe a little. But #30: The Reunion is a very special book. Previous Marco books are notable for Marco’s trademark adolescent humour. He has a “class clown” vibe; he makes the groaner jokes that you nevertheless laugh at, because he’s just so earnestly dorky in his clownishness. And while these books hinted at the steel within, it isn’t really until this book that we understand the lengths to which he will go.
Here’s one of those images that seared:
On the lip of the portable Yeerk pool was a large clamp. A sort of collar.
My mother’s neck was in that collar. It held her tight. It held her head sideways, so that one side of her face, one ear, was pressed into the water.
The rest of her body stood awkwardly, helplessly, bent over.
That’s messed up. That’s some straight-up horror movie shit.
The ship has sailed on whether Animorphs is YA at this point—they’ve covered some dark road in the past, what with trapping David in morph, and the amount of emotional and physical trauma the various Animorphs have endured. Applegate is not pulling punches here.
But it’s easy to forget the visceral experience—especially when one is re-reading this series, especially in electronic form. As I’ve mentioned previously, neither Applegate’s nor her ghostwriters’ writing is of the most complex nature. It is tempting to skim through parts of the book, and I find it’s easier to do that in an ebook than on paper. But then you get hit with something like the above, and you have to stop and digest what’s happening.
That’s Marco’s mom. Of everything they’ve experienced, everything that’s happened, Jake’s brother being a controller … this is the first time we’ve seen something as horrible as Marco’s mother, temporarily free of the Yeerk infestation, physically restrained in such a manner. I would argue that this is probably high on the list of most traumatizing moments in the series—and it’s only a quarter of the way through the book.
Central to The Reunion, of course, is the question of whether Marco can sacrifice/kill his own mother to take out Visser One (and potentially Visser Three, in the crossfire). He’s not even sure himself. And it drives a rather awkward wedge through the always-fractious unity of the Animorphs, with Cassie reacting with uncharacteristic anger:
“She’s your mother!” Cassie exploded. “She’s not ‘Visser One.’ She’s your mother! Is everyone just going to let this happen?”
Jake sent her a cold look. “This is not the time, Cassie.”
“When is it going to be the time? When Marco’s mind is screwed up forever by this? He’s in denial. This is his mother, for God’s sake.”
There is so much we could discuss in those three lines—I could write a whole essay, I think, on this one exchange. We could talk about Jake’s evolving role as leader/general of the Animorphs (there is another great exchange earlier in the book, where Marco observes how much his relationship with Jake has changed as the latter has become more of a leader and the Animorphs have evolved from gang to soldiers). We could talk about Cassie’s evolving role as the group’s conscience. There is, of course, the fact that she and Jake must continually butt heads about these matters, even though they lurrrrrve each other, and the tragic consequences this has as the series plays out. And, as she observes in that last line, there are the ramifications that these actions will have for Marco.
All of the above subtext is readily accessible to an adolescent reader. There is nothing here that would elude them; these conflicts would feel real and substantial despite the presence of aliens and morphing. This is the brilliance of the Animorphs series in its most quintessential form: these five human characters are relatable, because they are so flawed and unsure in the face of what are, ultimately, human problems. By mixing the issues of puberty and adolescence (growing up, finding your voice, dealing with absent parents, developing your moral nature) with issues of social justice (war, deception, making allegiances, dealing with betrayal, challenging systemic problems), Animorphs exemplifies what YA can do at its most thoughtful.
We have short memories. It’s easy to forget that there was meaningful, dark YA pre–Hunger Games (which was also a Scholastic publication, heyyyy). Harry Potter, obviously, is a huge influence in the way it grew from “hey, you’re a wizard, Harry, and you’re protected by the Power of Love” to “btw you got to kill Voldemort or he is going to kill you and literally everyone else—no pressure—oh btw a bunch of your favourite characters are DEAD NOW.” The proliferation of vampires and dystopias of late gives rise to a type of saturation that kind of obscures what YA was like when I was coming of age in the 1990s and early 2000s. (On a personal note, I mostly read “adult” literature from the very beginning of my novel-reading career. Aside from brief flirtations with Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew in grade 3, I was pretty much all about the Agatha Christie from the start, followed quickly by LOTR and Dune. While I dabbled in Harry Potter and similar stuff, I was never much of a YA reader until I’d already moved beyond the target age-range.)
Re-reading Animorphs isn’t just a blast from the past: it’s a reminder of the enduring and cyclic nature of our literature. Although the technology and pop culture references might seem dated, I feel like any teen from 2016 could pick up these books and find them recognizable and valuable, just as a teen from the 1980s, somehow stranded in 2016 thanks to time travel, might also get into them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this series in timeless, because it touches on timeless topics in a deep, meaningful way. The Reunion is a fantastic example of that.
The resolution is, in my opinion, perfect. Firstly, it is kind of a victory for the Animorphs—after all, the Yeerks now believe the free Hork-Bajir colony destroyed. Yet again it raises the stakes for our poor Animorphs: Visser One seems to have figured out there are humans who can morph! And the uncertainty over whether or not Visser One/Marco’s mom are dead sets up this huge emotional weight they have to carry going forward. This is just such rich, masterful plotting.
And I want to reach out and hug every one of these children. Even Ax. (Maybe especially Ax.)
Next time, we’re sticking to the family theme, as Jake has to stop his controller-brother, Tom, from possibly infesting their dad. When did this series get this dark?? I’m starting to see why that TV show never worked out. (I feel like on today’s CW it would be greenlit with, like, 5 seasons.)