Written by K. A. Applegate and her husband Michael Grant, the Animorphs books first hit shelves two decades ago. The beloved 1990s series told the story of five human kids — Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Marco, and Tobias — who stumble upon a dying alien prince and are recruited into saving the Earth from the Yeerks, a parasitic alien species taking over peoples’ brains. In order to give the teens a fighting chance, Elfangor (a kind of alien known as an Andalite) armed the kids with the ability to morph into any animal they touched, from a cat to a hammerhead shark to yes, even a starfish.
The series, which consists of 54 books, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and EW spoke to Applegate — who has since gone on to write the Newbery Medal-winning The One and Only Ivan — about Animorphs‘ famed run.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it about the series that you think the fans really responded to?
Being able to turn into animals is just plain fun, and we made it scary and creepy and mind-bending. So there’s that. But what we think cemented fan loyalty was that we were clearly not talking down to them or taking it easy on them. We used the premise to talk about big things with kids and we think they appreciated that. And then we’d have a fight between an alien and a kid-turned-tiger, and seriously, how is that not cool?
The series also seems like a great way to teach kids about animals. Was that part of the inspiration?
Neither Michael, my husband and co-author, nor I ever wanted to be teaching anything, or at least be caught doing it. Animorphs was a sugary snack that turned out to be full of vitamins, but we wanted it first and foremost to be fun. The more philosophical or educational elements were in service to the story, not the other way around. Goals number one, two, and three were to have readers snapping through the pages and forgetting to breathe. And way down around goal No. 4 was “Hey, let’s consider the nature of consciousness.”
What were some of your inspirations for the different alien species?
The Yeerks were straight out of sci-fi standards like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Star Trek, although the name is a wink-wink to Lord of the Rings, as the Elvish word for “orc” is basically “yeerk” with a different spelling. For the Andalites, we originally went more standard-issue, thinking we would need something accessible. Jean Feiwel, our amazing publisher at Scholastic, basically said, “Too familiar,” which we took as a challenge. “Oh yeah? Too familiar? How about blue-furred, four-legged, two-armed, stalk-eyed, mouthless, scorpion-tailed psychic? Seen one of those before? No, we didn’t think so.” [For] the Taxxons, who were massive worms that lived in a constant state of insatiable hunger that at times drove them to cannibalism, we’re pretty sure they were invented on or around April 15.
Ax was introduced after a few books. What inspired you to add a main character who was an Andalite?
Well, he was useful. He gave us a wider perspective on intergalactic geopolitics. Also, we got a lot of laughs out of Ax.
One of the things that sticks out about the series, is its depiction of war. How did you approach that aspect and the kids’ reactions to this prolonged battle?
One of our models was the old TV series Combat! which followed a single squad around WWII. We wanted that same tight-knit feel, that same grunt’s-eye-view. We decided early on that this was basically a war story, and we knew if that’s what we were doing, then we had to be honest in showing the cost. We wanted to reflect the effects reported by actual soldiers… Some profit from the experience, others are destroyed by it. Jake finds he doesn’t know what to do in peacetime, and finds his actions are questioned and even condemned. Cassie finds purpose in helping some of the displaced aliens. Marco works the talk show circuit and gets a TV deal. Tobias is shattered by the loss of Rachel. Ax returns to his people a hero.
We also saw how some of the Yeerks felt about it. What inspired you to explore that point of view?
Basically honesty. It’s important to understand your enemies. Knowing the motives and mentality of the foe makes it easier to make peace, or to succeed in making war.
Visser Three was a very ruthless leader. What is the key to crafting an effective long-term villain like that?
The [major] villain of modern times is of course Darth Vader. He was cool, mysterious, evil, but with some charm and a lot of charisma. And over time we learned something about his motives. We tried to do that with Visser Three. Emotionless, relentless killing machines are ultimately boring as villains; you want some nuance and something just a bit attractive. You want the reader to feel the seduction of evil — there’s no virtue without temptation.
When did you decide how it would end?
We were writing the end of a war, and we really did not want a Star Wars/Star Trek trumpet fanfare, medals-all-around kind of thing. That felt false. Wars don’t end with a party. Some people who survive war go on with their lives, some come away stronger, some are shattered, but all are changed. We didn’t want to lie to kids about that.
You’ve mentioned that you’re not exactly happy with how the series ended. Why was that?
Mostly we’re just unhappy with some of the fan reaction to the ending. We didn’t want to upset people, but within the context of the series we were striving for authenticity. The ending we wrote felt right.
What was the fan response to the series when it first debuted? Has it changed in the years since?
It was amazing, right from the start. These days, we still hear from fans, sometimes in the form of long, emotional letters in which Animorphs is credited for a decision to go into human rights law, for example. Our default is never to take ourselves seriously, so it was cool and strange and humbling to learn that kids were actually paying attention.