You were brave. You were strong. You were good. You mattered.

The stars must have aligned in the past week, because two things happened that have consumed my time: I was sleepily browsing Tumblr when I ran across a link that led to all the Animorphs books in downloadable form and both seasons of the television adaptation mysteriously appeared on Netflix. HALLELUJAH.

The Animorphs books were a cornerstone of my childhood. My sister and I collected nearly all of them; they’re still in our parents’ house, packed away in boxes in the garage, gathering dust. I remember heading to Target with my parents, to grocery shop presumably, and instead racing straight toward the book section. Every year we would get Borders (God bless your soul, Borders) gift cards for Christmas and we would take those little pieces of plastic and head straight for the Animorphs books, not caring about anything else. One year we found a stash of books our grandparents had bought us to give us for Christmas, titles we didn’t have yet, and we waited eagerly to open them on Christmas morning only to discover they weren’t there; we were utterly devastated (they had merely forgotten to wrap them).

I think I was around 9 or 10 when I started reading the series. They were flimsy books, each only about 150 pages long, with a cheesy flipbook character in the bottom corner, showing the narrator morphing to whatever the flavor of the month was.  There was an excerpt on the very front cover, across from a glossy picture showing a scene from the book that I would examine with fierce intensity, wanting to be sure, in all my childhood seriousness, that the picture matched the description in the book perfectly. Each month was a different narrator and they alternated in order: Jake, Rachel, Tobias (or Ax), Marco, Cassie.

Jake was the leader. Rachel was strong, beautiful, and brave. Tobias was a loner, Marco the comic relief, Cassie the peacemaker, Ax was smart and awkward and outcast. Tobias was my favorite and I was always secretly ticked off that they skipped his turn every rotation for Ax instead, even though I enjoyed Ax’s books. Tobias struggled with his humanity, was a loner, and had a rather complicated family situation (his father was technically an alien, so you can’t really get much more complicated than that). I emphasized with him. But I could emphasize with all of them, really. Jake’s uncertainty in his abilities. Rachel’s desire to be strong. Marco’s humor and his own heartbreaking family situation. Cassie’s morality and love for animals. Ax’s struggle to belong.

They were books for kids and I was a kid at the time, but looking back now, and re-reading them as I have been ever since I found that link, they were way more mature than I realized at the time. There are kids and they turn into animals – how cute! It should be cute, right? Animals are cute! It’s like they’re werewolves, only they can turn into whatever they want, that’s cute, right?

Yea … no. The recurring theme I find again and again is innocence – or rather, the loss of it. In the series, the Animorphs are middle-school aged, between 13 and 15, as far as I can gather. They struggle with fear, anger, and awful, awful decisions, the gray area between war and peace. It’s about child soldiers, biological warfare, fifteen year old war criminals, bad guys who sometimes aren’t bad, and good guys who certainly aren’t always good. It’s about living through a war and coming out the other side, in ways that range from “dealing with it” to “utterly and completely broken.” It’s about bravery and fear and love and pain – as seen through the eyes of children.

Goddamn.

The first fanfiction I ever wrote was Animorphs fanfiction. I filled up notebook after notebook, making a callus on my pen holding finger. I had very little access to the internet when I was a kid; I hardly had any idea what fanfiction was. My sister and I would write in our notebooks and then swap, reading each others’ stories, giggling at each others’ words. When we got the books, we would take turns reading, quoting the funniest parts out loud to each other, on our stomachs in our bedroom, making up stories about other made up stories. Those remain some of my fondest memories of growing up.

I’m watching the television show now. There are a lot more episodes than I remember and I’m trying to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I remember watching these; I do not remember them being this utterly awful. To get on my high and mighty horse for a moment, the stories are all wrong. It makes me want to yell. That is not Marco’s main morph! Ax isn’t human that much of the time! You can’t morph clothes! Why do they keep morphing lizards? Why does Tobias, a free hawk in the wild, have jesses around his legs?!

Most of these have rather obvious answers – it’s hard to get a trained gorilla. It’s easier to use a human actor than spend a lot of time and money on fancy (and I use that term loosely, because even for ’98, they don’t appear fancy at all) on special effects. You have half-naked people on a kids’ show. Lizards are small and easy to film. You have to keep birds on a leash. Easy answers.

The show is still awful though. It’s a train wreck. I wince every time I watch an episode. I’m on episode 11 right now. Out of 26. I wish there were less. Oh god, I wish there were less.

I’m still going to watch them all though. I’m going to watch and maybe sometimes even smile as I glimpse a ghost of the actual books in the show. It’s still nice to have something to watch, even if it was awful, about something I love. Like reading the books again (this time on my Kindle, 25 years old and not 10, in my own house and my own dog at my side), I’m taking out the dusty memories I stored with all the book and notebooks in my garage and savoring them. I don’t know how many things from my childhood I’ll savor as much as I’m savoring reliving my Animorphs years.

The entire series ends on a cliffhanger. There are dead and maimed among the six main characters in the series; everyone has been damaged, each of their suffering unique in its own way. I remember zipping along the lines of that final book, because I didn’t have enough money to buy it, so I powered through it breathlessly while standing in Target. I skipped sentences and words, eager to find the end before I had to leave, and when I read the final words, I remember my heart dropping down into my stomach. It’s a cliffhanger that will never be resolved – it’s been 15 years and I don’t foresee the author coming back to the series. I honestly don’t know if I’d want her to. You leave Jake and Rachel and Tobias and Cassie and Marco and Ax as you found them: fighting, even though they never wanted to. Kids who had no idea how far they would go or what it would cost them.

Man, these books hurt. I like to think that 10 year old me took away something from those books. Jake’s leadership. Rachel’s strength. Tobias’s ability to endure. Cassie’s empathy. Marco’s humor. Ax’s courage. I feel like they’re all part of me.

Like I acquired a part of them, maybe.

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