I read a lot of books as a kid, but K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs stands out from the crowd in my memory. This series was my introduction to science fiction, the source of most of my animal fun fact knowledge base, and a bonding tool between me and my sister. They’re also the reason why a lot of the stories I dictated to my parents as a kid had infuriatingly constantly-changing narrators. Hey, you write what you know, even when you don’t yet know how to do it well.

I have to admit that the premise of the series is pretty weird. Five human kids meet a dying alien prince who gives them the power to turn into any animal they can touch so that they can fight a guerilla war against another group of aliens – the Yeerks – who have waged a secret, parasitic war on humanity. Also, there are other alien species in the crossfire who have already been taken over by the Yeerks, a bunch of pacifistic dog robots who have been on Earth since the pyramids were built, a group of tiny aliens with massive egos and an annoying shrink ray, and a pair of godlike beings who view the whole thing as a kind of cosmic chess game.

It’s complicated. But I love complicated stories, and I ate it up as a kid. And over the past few weeks, I enjoyed it again as a college graduate.

One of the interesting things about re-reading a series a decade later is seeing how my memories held up. I didn’t remember some of the books at all, like the one with the morph-capable buffalo (long story). Regarding the books I did remember, I often found that I hadn’t remembered them in the correct order; I kept being surprised in the first ten books when things that I thought didn’t happen until very late in the series happened then instead. Maybe it’s because I didn’t read them completely in order to begin with. I know I started with the fourth book, reading along with my sister and asking her why Cassie’s dad didn’t know that she could morph into a squirrel.

The answer to that question is that the Animorphs must keep their fight a secret from everyone, to avoid having their identities discovered by the Yeerks. And the stress of keeping this secret really gets to them. It surprised me to find in my re-read that this was not so much a fun adventure series as it was a story about war.

My sister and I used to spend hours and hours making up Animorphs-like stories that starred ourselves, having fun pretending that we could turn into animals and save the world. But that isn’t all that happens in Animorphs. The Animorphs nearly die at least once per book, and they kill a lot of people along the way. The morphing process is constantly referred to as disgusting and horrifying. In my re-read, I couldn’t help but notice that the kids increasingly exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Even though I’d read all of these books before, these darker aspects took me by surprise. Given the prevalence of these darker aspects in the series, it’s unlikely that as a child I completely went without noticing them, but given my current surprise they must have not left a lasting impact on me. And it wasn’t a pleasant surprise by any means; by the end of the series I felt emotionally drained.

So why did I enjoy the Animorphs series so much as a child that I felt like reading them again over a decade later?

Well, my favorite Animorphs book from way back when was once again my favorite on this re-read: book number 29, The Sickness. It’s the one where Cassie morphs a Yeerk in order to rescue a Yeerk who is a member of the Yeerk-human peace movement. The peace movement, and Cassie’s efforts towards empathy and a way out of the conflict that doesn’t involve fighting, don’t receive as much focus in the series as the battles do. But it’s what I liked the most, and remembered best – the times when a black-and-white conflict showed shades of gray, and Applegate’s writing got me to think that no group can be completely written off as bad, that all people have the potential for good, and if we take the time to hear other people’s perspective, peace can win out.

In the years since the first time I read the Animorphs books, I’ve written a lot of stories that focus on that more complicated narrative of empathy, peacemaking, and moral gray areas. I think this book series is at least part of the reason why. Somehow, that smaller part of the series is what stood out to me as a child and stuck with me for all these years. It’s why I will continue to treasure my memories of this series, even if I don’t particularly feel like reading them all in a row again any time soon.