To an elementary school kid with an insatiable thirst for reading, there was no greater joy than going to the school library. In a way, besides the books in your own home or the books you might occasionally buy from a store, the books contained in a library were all that there was. All the books contained in that school library were books you could find easily, checkout and read. Everything beyond those walls was an enigma, out of reach and out of sight. Libraries, by their very nature, exist a few years behind in terms of their book availability. School libraries even more so. Because of this, in the early 2000s when I was growing up, the library at Wines Elementary School still contained many books from the late 90’s. There were dozens upon dozens of “Boxcar Children,” “Goosebumps,” and “Babysitters Club,” but by far the coolest looking books on the shelf were “Animorphs.”
With each cover showing a kid turning into an animal and the scary blurbs on the back warning of an impending alien invasion, those books were basically crying out to be read by sci-fi-minded children. Our library had almost every one of them, books 1-53 and a plethora of spinoffs. All except one. The final book in the series, number 54 “The Beginning,” was nowhere to be found. While kids are certainly curious individuals, they don’t quite have the attention span of adults. And while I certainly wondered how the whole thing was supposed to end, this small mystery, along with most of my memories and feelings about Animorphs in general, faded into the dark recesses of my mind, packaged away with memories of the playground and kindergarten.
This past summer I while I was interning in LA, I took a weekend trip to Portland, Oregon to visit some old camp friends I hadn’t seen in years. While there, we went to a used bookstore in the city. Lo and behold, while casually looking through the shelves, I stumbled across the entirety of the Animorphs series, including that elusive final chapter. Memories flooding back to me, I decided it was long overdue that I found out how the whole thing wrapped up. I bought the penultimate book as well so I could re-acquaint myself with the story and threw the two 100 pagers in my backpack for the flight home. How little did I know what was awaiting me…
You see, it turns out there was a reason why my children’s library didn’t have the final book in this children’s series. While it could be a mighty coincidence, after reading the end I’m left to assume some adult somewhere decided this was too much for kids and removed it from the library. “Animorphs” was a kids series through and through for much of its run. In every book the heroic “Animorphs” (kids who could turn into animals) would acquire a new “morph” (or animal to turn into), allowing them to solve the problem of the day that usually involved the alien Yeerks who were trying to take over the planet. Nothing much really changed from book to book and the battle with the Yeerks more or less felt like a stalemate designed to last forever and make as much money for publishers as possible. Not so in the last act. In the penultimate novel, Jake, arguably the main character of the series, orders a ton of secondary animorphs to their deaths (all of the animorphs are children, by the way) and then commits an act of genocide by flushing millions of unarmed Yeerks into the cold vacumm of space. Book 53 ends on a cliffhanger, with the conclusion of the war still to come. In 120-page “The Beginning,” the war ends in the second chapter. The rest of the book is about the aftermath. And what a terribly depressing aftermath it is.
As the final step in his master plan to defeat the Yeerks, Jake orders his cousin Rachel to her death. Tobias, Rachel’s lover, never forgives Jake and goes to live out the rest of his life in exile. Jake himself suffers from PTSD and is unable to live a normal life, grief-stricken over the things he did in order to win the war. It’s a coda at the end of what had been a relatively breezy series about kids battling aliens that takes a sharp turn into major anti-war writing in the last two books. I got off the plane and felt cold and empty inside. In “Animorphs” there is no “Nineteen Years Later,” no “All was well,” no Ewok celebration or fireworks after the funeral of Tony Stark. There is only war and the pain it inflicts upon all those who take part in it, no matter the righteousness of the cause. These are heavy themes, certainly not ones that I would have understood at age 9. But when I got off that plane my mind was totally blown.
I wondered what I would have thought if I had read that book all those years ago. I read the penultimate book and never realized it was setting up Jake as a PTSD-stricken genocidal warmonger, so maybe the events of 54 would have gone over my head as well. Or maybe not. Maybe some other kid, years before me, read number 54 and burst into tears, inconsolable until an adult took the book from their hands, locked it in a dungeon, and made sure no Wines Elementary school student would ever read it again. Whatever the case, for a series that I read fifteen years ago to reach across time and move me today, I have no choice but to give my respects. Not everything needs a happy ending because not everything in life has a happy ending. I don’t know what I would’ve thought of this when I was nine, but as a 21 year old with an uncertain future, I tip my hat to K.A. Applegate, Scholastic Books and all the rest. These were books about kids turning into animals to fight slug aliens. There were trading cards and a crappy TV show on Nickelodeon. “The Beginning” had no right to be such a moving end.