Laura Toailoa shares lessons learnt from Animorphs, the 90s children’s book series, in the most mentally challenging year of her life.
Animorphs came to me at a time I needed them the most. My mental health was in the toilet, I was living in Wellington and incredibly homesick for Auckland, and my new job required that I read and edit thousands of new words per week, leaving me with very little energy to read for fun.
When I felt the longing for home, I went to second-hand book stores for something familiar, cosy and safe. The stores were often small, and crammed with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There is something comforting about being around books that have lived in other stores, other homes, and other hands – I felt safe in their claustrophobic embrace. I could walk up and down and up and down the aisles for what felt like hours (one time it really was two hours) without having my bag checked on the way out.
On one of my therapeutic book-browsing trips, I spotted a pile of slim books with colourful spines and a familiar font. The cover of the book on top of the pile had the iconic and disturbing image of a child turning into a lizard. It was the Animorphs series.
My siblings loved these books in the late 90s and early 2000s, but I never read them. I couldn’t read the first book because it was the lizard one and, to me as a child, that was the scariest animal on Earth. There’s something about the scales, the forked tongue, the eyelids, and the fact that they could crawl up your leg if you were unlucky enough, that made me shiver. Just touching a picture of a lizard (or a snake) freaked me out. There was no way I would jump straight into the second book, and so I put Animorphs into the Never Going There category and carried on with my reptile-free life.
But on this day, I needed to feel closer to my siblings, and my homesickness overcame my fear of lizards. It also helped that the books were short (the only kind I had energy for) and only $4 each (student media isn’t that lucrative).
A bizarre premise that hasn't yet (a hopeful ‘yet’!) made its way into mainstream nostalgia pop culture
There will be minor spoilers here. Not about the ending (I haven’t finished the series yet), but I’ll touch briefly on plot elements. If you’re like me and love to know as little as possible before diving into a new thing, my TL;DR for you is that Animorphs gets way deep into the internal battles that young people often go through, but they have to deal with them during an intergalactic war.
The Animorphs series follows a group of young friends (intermediate to high-school age) who are given the ability to transform into any animal they physically touch. When they are in animal form, the animal’s instincts kick in, and they have to mentally overcome this before they can control the bodies. This ability is the only real weapon they have to fight a secret alien invasion here on Earth.
Each Animorph has their own defining characteristics. Jake is the leader, strong, and in charge; Rachel is the supermodel look-alike who always runs towards danger, never away from it. Cassie is an animal-loving pacifist, and the best one at morphing. Marco is the class clown who is the least keen on becoming an Animorph but is fiercely loyal to Jake (and the only one who can make Jake laugh and relax). Finally there’s Tobias, scarred by his difficult childhood and who would choose any other life if it meant leaving his home.
With a bizarre premise that hasn't yet (a hopeful ‘yet’!) made its way into mainstream nostalgia pop culture, these very short books gave me the language to deal with the most mentally challenging year of my life.
Coming to these books at age 23, I’m surprised that these kids can articulate and interrogate such complex issues. The Animorphs are deeply introspective about their inner complexities and contradictions. These kids’ internal monologues resonated with me and made me realise that I’m still coming of age (I still think this at age 26). I wonder if I would’ve found their perspectives and thought processes relatable at 12, but as someone in my 20s, I discovered so many surprising moments and thoughts that I could relate to.
My whole shtick is to be as socially cohesive as possible; I definitely cannot rock the boat
“There must be something kind of liberating, just being able to say ‘I’m scared’ like it’s no big deal. I can’t do that. I don’t know why. I just can’t.” Rachel, the danger-loving supermodel, thinks this to herself in the middle of an incredibly dangerous mission. Her commitment to the narrative of being the unafraid character that her friends see her as, and that she tells herself she is, outweighs what she really needs. One part of her personality becomes the dominant part of her, which turns into the only story she tells about herself.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get out of a role once you’ve started playing the part.” The other Animorphs take for granted that Rachel will always be up for a risky mission, always keen for a fight, always willing to go where no gorilla, elephant or tiger has ever gone. They rely on it. They need her gumption to be able to face their fears. But who soothes her fears? Where does she get to rest? Who will be the strong one for her friends when she isn’t?
I’ve never thought of myself as an outspoken or courageous person. I’m amenable and agreeable. I don’t notice someone’s been rude to me until I’ve thought about it for an afternoon and concluded that yes, actually, that man was patronising and demeaning. That friend did treat me as if I was disposable, that ex did disrespect me many times.
Because I’ve shown myself to be one kind of way, I was, like Rachel, so used to telling myself that that's what I should be. It’s as if, at the age of five, we spun a wheel of personality and had to stick with whatever we landed on. Even if, 20 years later, that doesn’t fit with what we really believe and feel anymore.
So for ages I remained the quiet observer, the passive one, the nice one. This is the self I’ve always been, the self I’ve shown people I am, that they’ve known and liked. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable by breaking our relationship norms and being someone they’re not expecting. My whole shtick is to be as socially cohesive as possible; I definitely cannot rock the boat.
What’s surprising is that the characters aren’t given quick glo-up moments
Moving away from home has given me a chance to experience myself separately from my established relationships. I get to see what I’m like without the relationship dynamics I’ve grown up with. I was reading Animorphs when I yearned to be home, be with the familiar, and try out different ways of being to see if they fitted.
I’ve found that, with age, I’m also more comfortable with being intentional in my actions. I am quiet and observant when I feel that makes the most sense. But I also speak out more often and contribute my ideas and questions when I have them. This isn’t all the time, though; I still find myself falling into my younger habits of being agreeable for the sake of social cohesion. But I’m also now patient with myself in understanding that growth isn’t a linear progression – it’s one step forward, a few to the side, a few backwards – and includes a lot of rest stops.
Examples of the growth I've experienced isn't in the books (at least by Book 29, which I'm up to). What’s surprising about Animorphs is that the characters aren’t given quick glo-up moments. There’s no cute montage in which Rachel realises that the brave thing to do is to actually say she’s afraid, and then the rest of the Animorphs embrace her and say they love and appreciate her no matter what.
These books are about children trying to fight against an alien invasion. And while they try to survive a life-threatening situation that adults should be handling, they also have to deal with all the mess and confusion of puberty. Rachel sits with her discomfort and fear, and then pushes it to the side for the sake of humanity. It’s heartbreaking to read as an adult. I just want to scoop up these child soldiers and give them therapy and love.
The lack of a safety net is built into the Animorphs’ world. It’s not that the adults know about the problem but feel helpless, like in Hunger Games. It’s not that the adults don’t believe the severity of the situation, like in the early Harry Potters. And it’s not that the adults are explicitly excluded from the world, like in Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia.
The very solution that I yell at the movies I watch – TELL AN ADULT YOU TRUST – is useless here
The aliens, or Yeerks, in Animorphs are tiny slug-like creatures that crawl through people’s ears, travel to their brains, and then flatten and expand their alien bodies and wrap themselves around the brain, taking full control of it. They have access to the person’s memories and thus can speak and behave convincingly. And because they can act as if they are exactly like that person, you can’t know just by talking to someone whether they’re themselves or a Yeerk-controlled person (called a Controller).
Thus, adults cannot be trusted with the information they have. The very solution that I yell at the books I read and movies I watch – TELL AN ADULT YOU TRUST – is useless here. This reality is met by several of the Animorphs. They discover that some of their loved ones are confirmed Controllers and learn a lesson that no child should: the very people who ought to help, love and support them, cannot.
Even if they’re not fighting a secret alien invasion, not all children have safe relationships with adults. There may be many reasons for this. Sometimes the adults in their lives have had their own childhood experiences of unsafe relationships. Or maybe they have to fight so many systematic battles, unlivable wages, difficult working conditions, and possibly institutional racism, that there is less time and energy left for the battles their children are going through.
So sometimes children maintain a façade and pretend everything’s okay, and school’s fine, and their friends are fine, and they’re just having fun hanging out. Just like the Animorphs. The pretence, the wanting to just cry and tell the adults what’s going on, the wanting to admit the scary things really going on in secret. When I say ‘children’, I really mean me.
I approached my own experiences the same way – feeling like I should be finding my own solutions and not burdening others. I didn’t talk about how in 2012 my mental health was at its lowest, and I battled with suicide ideation a lot, and wishing I could get into a car crash so I didn’t have to do it myself. I didn’t talk about how a sense of worth was tied to my grades and that when they dipped, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be happy. I didn’t talk about the main sexual assault in my life and the following incidents scattered here and there that I’ve brushed off as no big deal. I didn’t talk about the internalised racism and sexism that made me think I was at the same time inherently lesser while also positioning myself above those of race and gender that I felt I had a social upper-hand on.
I’m still on my quest to read all 54 books, plus Megamorphs and Alternamorphs
The Animorphs live in secrecy out of necessity. The cost of telling anyone their secret war is too high and they choose to bear that cost, leaning only on each other. And even then, each Animorph is battling their own internal struggle, and not sharing it in fear of burdening each other during an already incredibly difficult time.
This is where my storyline can deviate from my beloved Animorphs. Through the Animorphs’ experiences, I’ve learnt that it’s okay to change and I don’t have to stay the way other people think I am. That it’s not always best to keep secrets and I can reach out for help. Even though it’s deeply uncomfortable and I still feel like a burden to those who love me, I have the option to say, “I’m having a hard time with life at the moment – help.” I have parents who will house and love me if my life turns to shit. Failing that, I have a large web of extended family that I can fall back on. These are privileges I’m deeply grateful for, and they give me a lot more security than the Animorphs ever feel.
I’m still on my quest to read all 54 Animorphs books, plus the accompanying Megamorphs and Alternamorphs books. I’m so grateful to that second-hand book store for giving me the great love of my life for the past four years, which has brought me closer to my siblings and closer to myself. Seeing the way the Animorphs process their challenges of identity, friendship, loneliness, sacrifice and courage gives me the language I need to express the things I struggle with. When Rachel struggles with her identity, I am more able to voice mine; when the Animorphs stew silently in their own pain, I can see clearly the value of being honest and vulnerable with my closest friends. I didn’t expect to find the language to describe my deepest doubts and pain in these short 90’s children’s books, but I’m eternally grateful to them for seeing me and saving me.
I went to the window and looked up at the stars. Somewhere up there, around one of those cold, twinkling stars was... hope.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.