I’ve learned thanks to the wonder of randomly wiki-walking through TVTropes that K A Applegate, the author and architect of the greater plot of Animorphs and some other stuff is herself, quite a rad lady. Originally publishing under the name K A because it was gender ambiguous and therefore, less likely to be disregarded for having all those ladybits and such, her work pre-Animorphs included ghostwriting for Sweet Valley High.
Animorphs was a fantastic setting because it took a school-age fantasy that I think everyone’s had, and ran with it. Not the turning into an animal thing – that’s probably universal too, but the fantasy to which I refer is the idea that there’s some vast secret that even the adults can’t be trusted with, and therefore, it falls to me, a kid, and my friends, who can be in on it because we’re all super rad, to oppose them. We can’t tell our parents, we can’t tell anyone it’s our little secret, and that’s why it’s totally normal for me to imagine how I’d handle being attacked at the shopping centre and have to dive behind those counters, swing over the rail and jump onto the escalators.
I think that that was part of what made those books real to me; they started in a place where my mind already lived, and walked with me to another place that was the logical, sensible and real conclusion of those ideas, showing me both how that would work and the subsequent challenges that came with it. Strange for a series of soft sci-fi YAF, the series did its best to avoid raw coincidence, and it sought to make its core characters strong, believable and, through first-person narration, both include and exclude information to help the reader emphatise. I remember being genuinely confused by Marco’s behaviour at first, until the book where we saw his home life and how he interacted with his father. Suddenly his posturing and arrogance made sense – and it reminded me of myself.
K A Applegate has said that she’s okay with people passing around digital copies of her books because Scholastic at the time had no plan to distribute them (they started reprinting them in 2010). There’s some sixty books overall in the canon of the series, spanning five years, which suggests a breakneck publishing schedule, something that I admire. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but they still got out and got done and were uncompromising in their approach. Take the reader from a place they know, through something they can understand, to a place they’d never have expected. It is this model, I think, that makes Young Adult Fiction so very pure as a medium.
You don’t get to rely on obscurity for young adult fiction. While on the one hand, the reference pool is shallower, it means you can build a whole storyline around a classic piece of literature and use tangential learning devices to inform. You don’t get to do some of the more spicy elements of storytelling to play for the cheap seats, either, and if you want to include those elements, they have to be done subtly and cleverly (think Zuko and Mai in Avatar). Finally, in Young Adult Fiction you can’t treat your reader like they’re an idiot and expect them to make up the difference on your account. You have to be able to engage the reader, and you don’t get to, James Joyce style, say, well, it’s not up to me to make you care. Young Adult Fiction, at its finest, is about taking people who are starting to see a bigger world, and introduce them to it.
What’s more, most Young Adult Fiction wants a big framing device that it can then episodically explore – it gives you a good structure in which to build. It therefore lets you create ‘high concept’ stories and yet forces you to step through them carefully.
Fox asked me recently what I’d do, if tasked to create a concept for Young Adult Fiction in this vein. I’m still tussling with the idea.