When I was young, I spent many hours imagining what it would be like to transform into an animal. This is not a notion I came to on my own; I had the help of Animorphs, a popular children’s book series written by K.A. Applegate. Many who are unfamiliar with the series or even its title would probably recognize the original covers, which showed one of the main characters in the process of becoming an animal. My recollection is that it was the cover of the fifth book in the series (which ran from 1996 to 2001 and spanned fifty-four titles, in addition to a few shorter spinoff series, most of which were ghostwritten) that first caught my eye at the local library. That cover depicted one of the animorphs’s founding members, the wisecracking Marco—it was his speech tags that inspired me to ask my parents, to their chagrin, the meaning of sarcastic—as he took on the form of a silverback gorilla.
My dad read me that fifth book, The Predator, but when we realized we’d found ourselves a bit too in medias res for comfort, we went back to the beginning of the series. In the first book, The Invasion, the central group of teenagers encounters a dying alien who has crash-landed on Earth. The alien—an Andalite—warns them that another alien species, a race of sluglike parasites called Yeerks that enter the brains of other organisms and take control of their minds, is preparing to invade Earth. To help the humans in their fight against the Yeerks, the Andalite grants the teenagers a power cultivated by his species but never before used by any other: the ability to morph into other animals.
Because the main characters’ use of this morphing power is their primary means of resisting the threat the Yeerks pose to life on Earth, the books that follow brim with their transformations and subsequent adventures in a variety of animal forms. The way the books present the experience of the human characters in animal form is, in some ways, surprisingly sophisticated for the medium. The humans maintain their human thoughts and personalities while transformed, as well as a capacity for language—they are able to communicate telepathically by means of “thought speak.” But in animal form, they also come into contact with the animals’ experience of the world around them, which sometimes encroaches on their own desires and even actions. Take, for instance, this scene from the first book, in which one of the animorphs, Jake, has taken the form of a green anole lizard inside his school locker. Jake narrates (forgive the short paragraphs; it’s for kids):
Gigantic drapes as big as the sails of a ship were falling all around me. They were my clothes. In the dim light I could see two monstrous, misshapen things on either side of me. I could just make out the Nike swoosh, and realized they were my shoes. They were the size of houses.
And then the lizard brain kicked in.
Fear! Trapped! Run! Run! Rruunrunrun!
I shot left. A wall! I scampered up, feeling my feet stick to it. Trapped! I jumped back. Another hard surface. Trapped! Runrunrunrun!
I fought to get control, but the lizard brain was panicked. It didn’t know where it was. It wanted out. OUT!
Go toward the light! I ordered my new body. The ventilation slits. That was the way out.
But the body was afraid of the light. It was terrified.
I was still bouncing off the walls. I could not overcome the panic instincts of the lizard body.
As the human body becomes the animal’s, the human’s mind comes into contact with the animal’s, and often, as here, a struggle for control ensues. The books consistently acknowledge that every animal’s experience of the world has a distinct form and that to take on the body of an animal is also to take on the shape of an alien experience.
There was, and remains, something fascinating about the premise of these books, and there’s a reason why their covers are iconic, recognizable even to many who never cracked the spines. On one side stands a human teenager (well, usually); on the other side, an animal—a wolf spider, a peregrine falcon, a housefly, a giant squid. Between these two stable shapes, a sequence of stages occurs as human gives way to animal. If you open one of the books, you’ll find, on the bottom right corner of the first page, a miniature black-and-white reproduction of the human from the cover. Flipping through the pages is like working a tiny flip book that yields a reimagination of the transformation depicted on the cover, now stretched across more than a hundred intermediary stages and given the magic of motion. I would watch these little movies over and over.