I’m closing in on the end of my Animorphs reread, which means I’ve got middle grade on the brain. This genre is fascinating, as its stories need to be deep enough to hold a 12-year-old’s interest but simple enough for an 8-year-old to follow. While every kid is different, the range in tastes and understanding between those ages is sizable.
I’m not an expert on developmental psychology, so that’s about all I can tell you about middle-grade readers. However, I am a literary critic, so there’s a lot more I can tell you about middle-grade stories. Specifically, what happens when we put Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, K. A. Applegate’s* Animorphs, and Tui T. Sutherland’s Dragonet Prophecy under a microscope and rate them on their ANTS using a scale of 1 to 10. No matter the age group, ANTS are always the four critical elements that make stories popular.
The Chronicles of Prydain
To the best of my googling, Prydain’s 1964 publication date means it’s actually older than the middle-grade classification itself. Fortunately, Taran’s adventures are firmly marketed to readers in the same age range, so that’s close enough for our purposes. In fact, I’d wager that a good percentage of Mythcreants readers over a certain age have nostalgic memories of an assistant pig keeper and his band of friends adventuring through a land that’s kind of Wales if you don’t look too closely. Whether you grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, there’s a good chance Prydain made it to the top of your childhood reading list.
For all its quasi-Welshness, the world of Prydain is pretty generic, so the quintology depends entirely on its characters for attachment. The two standouts are easily Fflewddur the bard and Gurgi the… Gurgi, I guess. Fflewddur is just a neat concept, a minor king who prefers to spend his time as a traveling musician and constantly struggles with his desire to embellish the truth. Meanwhile, Gurgi is faithful, loyal, and brave despite being easily frightened. It means more when Gurgi faces down danger because we know how scared he is. The way he fixates on Taran as his “master” is a bit unfortunate, but I’ve seen worse. A few less prominent characters like Doli the grumpy dwarf and Llyan the giant cat are also fun, if not especially deep.
As a protagonist, Taran also does a fairly good job. He’s a bit on the bland side, but he actually stands out in the lineup of fantasy farm-boy heroes by not having any special powers or secret lineage. Looking at you, Belgariad. Instead, Taran starts off as unprepared for adventure as any assistant pig keeper would be, so he must learn as he goes. This creates a few awkward plot moments where Taran doesn’t have the skills to do things Lloyd Alexander wants him to do, but it’s gratifying once Taran finally comes into his own in books four and five.
The rest of the cast isn’t as strong. Dallben is the answer to “What if Gandalf was more of a jerk and did less to help?” He’s supposedly very wise, but his wisdom rarely seems to be of any use to Team Good. Instead, Dallben mostly acts smug when other characters don’t know something he hasn’t told them. Meanwhile, the narrative heaps praise on Prince Gwydion for being so cool and rad, but he’s average at best and also something of a jerk. My favorite Gwydion moment is in book three, when Taran wants to take out an enemy spy but Gwydion insists they have to wait. Then the spy kidnaps Eilonwy. Gwydion acts like nothing could have prevented this; bad things just happen sometimes.
Speaking of Eilonwy, she probably deserves an article of her own, but I’ll try to summarize. She’s fun and sassy when she first shows up but quickly loses the ability to do anything other than harangue Taran. Then she enters a weird arc where she’s cool for being Not Like Other Girls, but this is also a flaw that she has to overcome, becoming More Like Other Girls as part of growing up. Also, Taran trades her magic away while she’s unconscious. Yikes! Oh well, at least her dialogue is still good at delivering sick burns!
Final Score: 7
Other than a bunch of Welsh names, Prydain doesn’t have much that you haven’t already seen in a million other fantasy stories. Even going back to when Alexander first published, Middle-earth already had his world beat. In fact, Prydain is significantly less wondrous than most other fantasy settings. There’s some magic, but it’s usually minor and unimpressive. Most disappointingly, Annuvin is called the “Land of the Dead” but is just a regular place where the bad guy happens to live.
You’d expect that in exchange for reduction in the fantastic, Prydain would feel more grounded and realistic, but it doesn’t. The world is super nebulous, and most of the time it barely seems inhabited, despite the characters always talking about how the whole place is rotten with various kingdoms. The few people we see mostly live idyllic medieval lives, which just feels wrong in a world with so little magic in it.
The main source of novelty is actually a handful of magic items. These usually have a fairly minor effect, but Alexander makes them feel important anyway. Gurgi’s wallet produces endless food, but it’s always bland and tasteless. Eilonwy’s bauble glows brightly at her command, which often saves Team Good’s bacon when they’re trapped somewhere dark. Fflewddur’s enchanted harp produces the most wondrous tune, but the strings snap whenever he tells a fib, which is often.
There are also a few cool locations, like the Marshes of Morva, a spooky and dangerous swamp. However, this also highlights just how boring Annuvin is. Boromir would love it there, as it’s one of the few realms of evil that one simply can walk into.
Final Score: 4
I’ve got an entire article explaining how Arawn, the big bad of these books, is nothing to write home about. His one special power appears to be shapeshifting, and he only ever uses that to badly impersonate the good guys. Fortunately, he’s so far in the background for most of the quintology that Alexander usually relies on other sources of tension.
Book one in particular has very strong tension, mostly because Taran and his companions have no idea what they’re doing. They’re not fighting the big bad, just trying to find an escaped pig and reach the safety of a friendly castle. Fflewddur is the only one with any combat training, and he’s hardly an expert, so their lives always feel at risk.
Tension drops in books two through four, as our heroes get more capable without any increase in the challenges they face. In the second book, Taran is technically up against a trio of godlike witches, but only because he insists on destroying a dangerous magic item himself rather than letting them keep it safe, which just feels unnecessary.
The other enemies are all various flavors of underwhelming until the final book, when our heroes must go toe-to-toe with the Cauldron-Born. These invincible undead are the only thing that makes Arawn a credible threat, and most of the final book is taken up by Taran leading a desperate delaying action just to slow the Cauldron-Born down. It doesn’t make up for some of the previous books, but it’s very tense in the moment.
Final Score: 6
Prydain is a series that consistently struggles with endings. The first book has an awkward sequence where Taran watches Gwydion save the day via a deus ex machina. Book two has an obviously sinister ally betray Team Good so the heroes have someone to fight. Book three acts like it’s a big triumph that Eilonwy’s magic was taken away from her while she was unconscious. Because magic is bad, m’kay?
This problem continues through the final book, where Team Good defeats Arawn because Taran just happens to find a magic sword under a rock, and that magic sword just happens to be capable of killing the Cauldron-Born. Great job, Taran!
On the bright side, there are usually decent moments of satisfaction within each book, whether it’s Taran defusing a border war via cattle-herd management or Eilonwy using her bauble to warn the other characters that they’re about to be ambushed. It’s just too bad Alexander can’t apply those same techniques to his grand finales.
Instead, our main source of satisfaction comes from the characters’ journeys. Other than Eilonwy and her Not Like Other Girls shenanigans, this generally works quite well. Fflewddur learns to be more truthful, Gurgi gains courage, Doli grows more attached to humans, etc. Taran even becomes High King despite lacking any royal heritage, which is nice. It feels like he’ll do a good job, as his experiences have forged him into a capable leader. This is also when all magic suddenly gets up and leaves Prydain in a serious case of wishbusting, but we can’t have everything.
Final Score: 5
While The Chronicles of Prydain are familiar to multiple generations of fantasy readers, there’s exactly one group for whom the Animorphs books have a special meaning: ’90s kids. Supposedly the reprint changed some of the text to make the books less rooted in their original decade, and I’m happy to report it absolutely did not work. From the prevalence of CDs to the way our heroes talk about the novelty of a grimdark Star Trek remake, these books couldn’t be more ’90s if they tried.
If you aren’t already a fan, the premise is a little complex. Earth is being secretly invaded by body-snatching aliens called Yeerks, and our heroes are a small group of nebulously aged kids trying to stop them. Fortunately, a different alien called an Andalite gives our heroes the ability to “morph,” taking the form of any animal they can touch – hence the series title. I don’t know if Animorphs is the best series on this list, but with a total of 62 books, it’s certainly the most series.*
As a series, Animorphs is built on attachment to its six main characters, and it is incredibly successful in this regard. All six of them are distinctive without being shallow or one-note. I’ve gone into greater detail in another article, but the short version is that each of them starts with a single unique trait, then builds on that trait throughout the series.
It sounds simple, but with six main characters, it’s no easy task to ensure that each of them has an interesting angle without stepping on each other’s toes. As the leader, Jake could easily have also become the group’s main fighter, overshadowing Rachel. As an Andalite stuck far from home, Ax could have muscled Tobias and his permanent hawk morph out of the team’s outsider role. Applegate* keeps that from happening by studiously giving each character plenty of room to shine in their own lane, something that can only be accomplished through hard work and attention to detail.
A downside of being so focused on the main cast is that most other characters feel a bit flat. I’m hard pressed to remember anything about the Animorphs’ families or their occasional allies against the Yeerks. On the other hand, when your main cast is a whopping six people, side characters are a lot less important.
The real flaw in attachment here stems from how long the series is, which is something we’ll see again. After about book 30 or so, the characters start running through repetitions of the same arc. Rachel is struggling with her battle rage, again. Cassie feels conflicted about killing other beings, again. I lost track of how many times Marco had an angst arc about his mom being taken by the Yeerks.
Even with these problems, Animorphs is a triumph of character design, and it’s no surprise how many people have fallen in love with these six kids.
Final Score: 9
Initially, Animorphs is super high on novelty, primarily through the heroes’ morphing power. In each book, they acquire new morphs, sometimes more than one, which gives us a never-ending parade of animals with which to fight the Yeerks in creative ways. There’s a big focus on how each animal works: birds of prey for reconnaissance, seagulls for blending in at the beach, flies for stealthy infiltration, etc. This ensures that each morph feels new and exciting. The books also have educating kids about animals as a major side goal, and while not all the information is accurate,* it’s still a nice supplement to science class.
And there’s more novelty to be had than these morphs! This series also has a wide variety of cool aliens for us to enjoy. The Andalites are deerlike creatures with stalk eyes and a razor-blade tail. The Hork-Bajir are an herbivorous species covered in blades that they usually use for cutting bark off trees, when they aren’t enslaved as Yeerk shock troops. Howlers are basically lava people who sound a bit like Scooby-Doo. We also have more exotic aliens, like the pupating Skrit Na and the symbiotic Iskoort. Applegate even introduces her own version of Q so that she can whisk the Animorphs off to an alien planet or back in time every few books.
If I were only judging the first 30 books or so, it would easily merit an 8 or 9. But in the back half of the series, novelty takes a serious hit because we’ve seen all this before. You can only fight Hork-Bajir and be sent back in time by Off-Brand Q so many times before it starts to get old. The plots also get pretty repetitive, which detracts from the novelty even more than the samey worldbuilding. What’s that, we’re meeting another group of Andalites who could help us except they’re jerks? Got to be the third time this month.
It also gets harder and harder to ignore the clashes in worldbuilding choices. The Yeerks have advanced energy weapons, and the Animorphs fight them by turning into mundane animals. The Animorphs should have gotten fried in their first fight, but somehow the Yeerks always seem to miss. Morphing is also a very strange power for the Andalites to have, as little else in their technological arsenal is based around transformation or biology. Nor does it seem like the Andalites even use morphing all that much, despite its obvious utility for many tasks beyond frontline combat.
Final Score: 6
In the early books, Animorphs is about as tense as a middle-grade series can get. Maybe a little too tense, honestly. Reading it as a kid, a few of those battle scenes definitely gave me nightmares. But the setup is very good. The Animorphs are wildly outmatched, facing an entire Yeerk army that’s secretly landed on Earth. Our heroes’ only hope is that their identities are secret from the enemy, giving them a fighting chance.
That point is really important, since if the Animorphs had no chance at all, tension would actually drop. Instead, it’s just possible, albeit super unlikely, that they can delay the Yeerk conquest until Andalite reinforcements arrive. From there, the tension flows from excellent management at the scene level. Individual battles are always difficult, and the heroes always have to struggle for victory. This is turned up to 11 whenever Visser Three, Yeerk leader and big bad, takes the field in one of his own monstrous morphs.
Tension slowly ebbs the further you get into the series, partly because flaws in the setup become more obvious. Visser Three is dangerous in a fight, but as a leader, he’s pretty incompetent. He’s easily baited, kills lieutenants for giving him bad news, and routinely lets his enemies escape because he wants to crush their spirits before killing them. Remember how the Yeerks constantly miss with their energy weapons? That doesn’t help either, and it begins to feel like our heroes are the ones with the advantage since their technology actually works.
But the biggest drain on tension is that absolutely everyone has plot armor. Obviously none of our heroes can die, but neither can any of the other recurring characters. As long as they survive their introductory book, they’re effectively immortal. Not even the villains can die! In over 40 books, I counted only a single death of a character we’d seen more than once.* This does eventually change but not until super late in the series.
Final Score: 6
A major point in the Animorphs series’s favor is that most of the time, Applegate opens each book with a serious problem, uses that problem to drive conflict throughout the story, then skillfully resolves said problem in the climax. Sometimes the problem is external, like the Yeerks trying to infest some important human leader to help with conquering Earth. Sometimes the throughline is built around a character arc, like Rachel realizing that you need more than unbridled aggression in battle or Tobias coming to terms with living as a red-tailed hawk. Occasionally, a book fails to do this,* but the series is pretty reliable as a whole.
It’s good that we have that strong foundation, because Animorphs has a major problem when it comes to satisfaction: nothing is ever allowed to change. Characters can develop, and specific Yeerk schemes can be stopped, but the basic premise of six kids fighting (mostly) alone against a secret alien invasion must remain. This means the Animorphs can’t ever expose the Yeerks, the Yeerks can’t ever learn who the Animorphs are, any attempt to kill Visser Three inevitably fails, etc. There’s basically a giant reset button at the end of every book, returning us to the status quo from which we came.
This eventually changes as the final book approaches, but that takes a long time. Then there’s the series finale to consider. Or rather, finales, because there are two of them. The first is about what you’d expect: our heroes finally defeat the Yeerks, having to make a bunch of difficult moral choices, most of which come with some level of contrivance. A recurring problem with Animorphs is that Applegate doesn’t mind bending the plot into all kinds of unnatural shapes so long as she gets some kind of grimdark dilemma for the characters to grapple with.
But then there’s a second ending, where most of the main characters fly off into space, run into a previously unknown enemy, and die ramming it with their ship. Maybe. The book ends without making it clear whether the Animorphs actually die. This is such a bizarre ending that it feels like a prank. I don’t know if it was bait for a sequel that never materialized or if Applegate actually thought this was the best way to end her story, but it’s a mess either way.
Final Score: 4
The Dragonet Prophecy
Technically, these 5 books are only part one of Wings of Fire, which stretches on for another 10 entire novels. Dear lord. Good news, though: those later books are about completely different characters, so we can limit ourselves to a mere quintology. Our second of the night! This one is about five young dragons, aka dragonets, who are prophesied to stop a vicious war raging between draconic kingdoms. This is also by far the most recent story on our list, with the fifth book published a mere nine years ago in 2014. Perhaps being more recent will help it warm the heart of this crusty old critic.
This story focuses on five dragonets from different kingdoms who endure great hardships together and become a found family, so you’d figure it scores really high in attachment, right? Well… it definitely wants to, but it has a few problems.
First, despite five decently long books, we don’t actually get to know these characters super well. The reason? Each of them gets one book to narrate, and when that happens, Sutherland finds reasons for that dragonet to spend most of the story off on their own, where they mostly interact with secondary characters outside the main five.
It’s weird, but it’s remarkably consistent. In book one, the characters are imprisoned, and Clay spends most of the book in a separate cell from the others. In book two, Tsunami is welcomed home by her mother, queen of the SeaWings, while her friends spend the story in a cave. In the last book, Sunny just flies off and does a little side quest on her own for a while.
Even when they’re together, the characters often aren’t very distinct. This is actually lampshaded at one point. Most of the time Glory is the sarcastic quipster, but when it’s her turn to narrate, Tsunami takes on the role. The characters make a joke of it, but that doesn’t actually fix the problem! It’s also pretty clear that Sutherland likes some of these characters more than others. Glory and Sunny are consistently portrayed as right and good, while on the other end, Tsunami is constantly scolded for being “bossy.”* So that’s not great.
The saving grace of these characters is that despite being dragons, they’re very relatable, like modern middle-grade readers that someone has polymorphed into dragons. They’re also very sympathetic, as everyone is out to get them because of a prophecy they had no control over. So they’re not terrible, but they’re not amazing either.
Final Score: 5
The main draw of this series is dragons, dragons, and more dragons. Fortunately, Sutherland delivers. While humans do technically exist in this setting, they’re pretty minimal. Instead, we have an entire dragon society divided into different kingdoms, each of which has their own special abilities and aesthetics. Pro tip: readers absolutely love it when there are different factions that each have their own special abilities and aesthetics. If it can be turned into an online personality quiz, it’s probably got strong novelty.
Another point in the quintology’s favor is that each book sees the heroes travel to a new draconic kingdom, so we can learn how the different types of dragons live. SkyWings are a bit generic, being the “standard” dragon from which the others diverge, but others are much more interesting. The SeaWings have underwater cities made of coral, while the RainWings feast on fruit from their treetop homes. All very cool.
The main issue is that even though the books have cool dragon factions for readers to identify with, those factions are not given equal turns at the coolness fountain. I’ve got a worldbuilding post that digs into the details, but the short version is that RainWings and SandWings get all the cool abilities, while MudWings and NightWings get a big stack of nothing. There’s also a weird amount of racism toward RainWings, partly because of how powerful they are. Their acid breath can one-shot any other dragon, so the only way to explain why they don’t win every conflict is for them to be lazy and incompetent.
Final Score: 7
For most of The Dragonet Prophecy, tension is fairly high. The dragonets are caught between a number of influential factions, each of which wants to use the prophecy for their own ends. This usually means imprisoning the dragonets and using them as political props. None of these factions really care about ending the war; they just want to come out on top, so they make for ruthless and powerful enemies.
The scene-level problems are competently executed as well, though the early fight scenes are often more gruesome than tense. Contrary to what some writers think, adding blood and guts doesn’t automatically increase tension. Fortunately, Sutherland learns her lesson and focuses more on the potential danger than the gore in later books. In a refreshing change of pace, the heroes aren’t completely invincible, and at least one of them receives a major injury that is still with them by the end.
Speaking of the later books, that’s also where tension starts to sag but for a reason we haven’t seen before: it seems inconceivable that the heroes will solve their main problem. The series throughline is making peace between the warring kingdoms, but as book five dawns, there’s no way the dragonets can do that. This means we’re left waiting for a twist to change the situation. The twist does come, but it doesn’t retroactively make the previous sections more exciting.
Final Score: 7
Individually, the five books are only ever okay at this. Book one’s big finale is escaping from the SkyWing prison, but that conflict is introduced a bit too late in the book to make a good throughline. The book also has to tack on an awkward coda to finish up its narrator’s character arc, since it didn’t mesh well with the prison break.
Book two is as good as it gets. The problem of making allies with the SeaWing kingdom is presented early, and it drives the story for the whole book. It even supports Tsunami’s character arc as she narrates the book, which is nice. Granted, the resolution depends on some amazingly contrived magic, but we’ll take what we can get!
It all goes downhill from there. Book three doesn’t have a real ending, and book four is mostly resolved by a volcano conveniently erupting at just the right time. Then we have book five, where the war is finally ended by the last-minute appearance of a special magic item whose only purpose is to eliminate the dragonets’ remaining enemies. Yay?
The story also leaves a number of arcs unresolved. We have what looked like several romance plots between the main characters fizzling out, and a looming villain just flies off instead of attacking the heroes. This is weird, since she spends at least a book telling everyone who will listen that she’s going to get revenge on those no-good dragonets. Maybe she talked to a therapist about letting go of her grudges, I don’t know.
Final Score: 3
Our final scores are… 23 for Prydain, 25 for Animorphs, and 22 for Dragonet. None of these books are unreadable, but Animorphs still has something special with its characters that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Or maybe that’s my ’90s-kid bias showing; who’s to say? I just wish I could read a version of Animorphs with about 20 filler books cut out. That would be something.
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