Katherine Applegate is writing some amazing books for middle grade these days (looking at you 'Wishtree'), but my generation will always fondly remembers her as 'K.A. Applegate' (a loose pseudonym used with her husband Michael Grant). As the author of the Animorphs series Applegate injected a paranoid vision of a secret alien takeover into the brains of future millennials everywhere. This was a phenomenon of the late '90s' almost the equal of 'Goosebumps', even having a TV-series on Nickelodeon. I picked up the whole 54+ book set recently at a flea market and can't wait to dive back in.
Each installment of the series is told in first person by one of the main characters. They can't tell us their last names, if they ever do its a fake, because if their names got out they would be hunted down and killed. Or worse. They could even be kids in your own town or school! Ooooo. It was great stuff.
On the way home from the mall one day Jake joins up with his friend Marco and Tobias, who's stuck around him since being rescued from bullies, as well as his cousin Rachel and her friend Cassie, who Jake has a crush on. Together they take a shortcut home through a permanent construction site. There they witness the crash of a spaceship and encounter an alien, Elfangor, an Andalite, who warns them of the sinister Yeerks. They are slug-like aliens who crawl into people's bodies and possess them by taking over their brains. These Yeerks will soon come down and kill him and destroy all evidence of his ship to keep their existence secret.
Jake is our first pov for the series and sets the tone. He's an athletic kid, big and popular enough to defend himself and others from school bullies. He's disappointed he didn't make the basketball team like his big brother Tom had before moving on to high school. He's probably around 12 or 13, same as his friends. It's important that Applegate makes clear Jake's fear when he faces danger and his reluctance to accept the awful truth of what he and his friends are facing.
The five are asked to take on special powers to enable them to resist the Yeerk invasion and possibly gather evidence so the authorities will believe what's happening. Many humans have been possessed by the Yeerks already and an Andalite army is at least a year away.
They do it, with some reluctance on the part of Marco. The power gives the five kids the ability to transform, or morph, into animals. The rules are they must 'acquire' the DNA of that animal through physical contact, and that they can't stay in a 'morph' for longer than two hours or it becomes permanent. There is much more Elfangor would like to tell them, but there was no time. The kids witness nightmares walking and discover that some people they know well are in fact 'Controllers': possessed by a Yeerk.
For such a short novel a lot of characterization is covered in the form of the five Animorphs - a term coined by Marco by the end of the book - and their relationships with each other. The basic rules of engagement with the Yeerks are established, the real horrors of the situation are made clear, and certain moral gray areas are already being discussed by the group. A few cultural references aside, the book holds up with only a few minor continuity and/or story problems that I don't remember ever being addressed.
Next: 'The Visitor'