What kid hasn't galloped like a horse, skulked like a cat on a hunt or skittered across the floor like a lizard? But to actually become an animal - temporarily of course - now that would be the coolest.
Especially if that's what it takes to save the world from the alien Yeerks, those slithering, goopy creatures that infest people's brains by way of the ear canal.
If you're up on the reading habits of 11- and 12-year-olds (and of some children much older, if they'd admit it), you already know about the phenomenon called Animorphs.
They're the invention of author K.A. Applegate, a 40-something mom in Minnesota, who has combined a love of animals, a mastery of contemporary preteen life and a dose of science fiction to create the best-selling series "Animorphs."
Kids are reading them as fast as she can write them, which at one a month is pretty fast. In the books, five lead characters - Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie and Marco - take turns narrating. They have the ability to morph into animals, but only for two hours at a time.
"My favorite is Marco," said Nick Quijas, a fifth-grader at Underwood Elementary in Lee's Summit, Mo. "I guess I'm kind of like him. I like to tell jokes."
In the series, the children happen upon a dying alien warrior, a loser in the battle against the Yeerks. He endows them with the ability to switch species, which comes in handy as the kids realize that fellow townsfolk have become Yeerk-infested drudges.
The sci-fi stuff is certainly an attention-grabber. But some of the most intriguing passages in the books explore the natural world, detailing the urges and instincts, the power and limitations of animals. Tobias as a red-tailed hawk hankers for some mice he sees far below in the dune grass. Jake as a lizard, easily panicked by any movement, watches the world in an unfamiliar way, his lizard eyes anchored on the sides of his head.
On the Internet, young readers' Animorph Web sites are proliferating. So are the exclamation points as Animorph fans effuse with each other about the books and praise Applegate.
Bill Wright, a spokesman for Scholastic Inc. in New York, said the first book was published in May 1996, and the popularity has grown steadily with the series. Book No. 18, "The Decision," is hitting bookstores now. About 10 million books are in print.
"Animorphs" is currently the No. 1 best-selling paperback series for children, Wright said, with readers generally between ages 9 and 13. The books seem to attract girls and boys, animal lovers and science-fiction fans. The company's Web site at www.scholastic.com//animorphs receives 35,000 visits a week and more than 100 e-mail messages a day on its forum.
As for the author, she's keeping mostly to herself, having agreed to only a handful of interviews in two years. The occasional online event gives her readers some access, Wright said.
Pub Date: 5/10/98