For kids who love to read, there’s something deeply exciting about opening up a book and being absorbed into someone else’s adventures. Whether creeping along with Bilbo through gloomy Mirkwood, Sting drawn and ready, or feeling outraged along with Peter Hatcher after he realizes his brother Fudge has eaten his pet turtle, or treading ever-closer to King Haggard’s castle along with the very last unicorn in the world, there’s nothing like the thrill of the chase, the pleasant frustration of wondering what will happen next, and the eventual catharsis, be it glorious or tragic. But for some kids, notably those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an alternative to simply reading about the protagonist’s derring-do—we could actually be the protagonist. We could be the masters of our fates, we could be the captains of, if not our soul, at the very least, The Phantom Submarine. We could choose our own adventure.
The Choose Your Own Adventure format has intrigued children for years—decades, now—and so it’s fitting that the series has always been child-focused, even at its genesis. Edward Packard, one of the first authors to use the second-person style of adventure writing, and author of the first official Choose Your Own Adventure novel, came up for the idea when telling stories to his children. He says, “I was making up a story about a boy named Pete who had been washed off a ship by a big wave and was cast up on the beach of a tropical island. But in continuing the story, I couldn’t think of what would happen next, so I asked, ‘what would you do if you were Pete?’ and I thought of a couple of possibilities. It was fun for them helping decide how the story progressed, so that’s how I got the idea for a book where ‘you,’ the reader, are the main character and make decisions leading to branching plot lines and multiple endings.” The format worked in his first book, Sugarcane Island. A few years later, Bantam bought the concept and developed the series.
When training new authors to write for the series, Bantam made sure to alert them to how important these books were to the readership. Author Ellen Kushner recalls that when she was first contracted to write for the project, her publishers told her that children loved the books so much they were saving their allowances to buy them. “That’s a big deal,” she comments. “I felt it was a sacred trust. I knew I needed to deliver.” She suspects that the reason they were so popular was that they were a hybrid creation—a book and a game—and the protagonist was the reader. “That’s really appealing to kids,” she says, “being dropped into the middle of a story—your story.”
“Appealing” seems like something of an understatement. The Choose Your Own Adventure series has well over 200 titles, with new ones still coming out yearly, and the series has been translated into French, Danish, Basque, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Malay, Catalan, and Icelandic, among other languages.
There’s something rewarding about being able to personally determine the outcome of a novel. As a child, I remember wishing Matt had gone away with his Native American friend Attean at the end of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver (rather than doing the responsible thing and waiting for his family). Author Jesse Bullington, meanwhile, recalls feeling unhappy at the ending of Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, when all magic had to leave the world. Another acquaintance of mine recalls being disappointed with the ending of Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics, wishing it had been more romantically satisfying. With the Choose Your Own Adventure series, however, the sense of helplessness is (at least partially) removed, and many children found in them a different sort of pleasure: that of experiencing agency inside a text.
It’s an undeniably neat concept—deciding what choices a character will make, what paths he or she will walk—and an idea that’s been put to good use in some of the most popular video game franchises, such as Bioshock, World of Warcraft, and Red Dead Redemption. Players of those games have expressed delight over the freedom to decide whether to be good or evil, being able to have a character that looks and behaves like no other in the game, or to simply not follow the storyline as the designers conceptualized it. The customizable nature of the gameplay seems to locate the player more firmly in the world, and yields a sense of personal investment, a deeper engagement with the text—and the Choose Your Own Adventure novels gave their readers something of the same experience.
Author and web designer Jeremiah Tolbert says he probably read every single CYOA book when he was a kid, and still has a few on his bookshelf. When asked why he keeps them, Jeremiah replies, “The time in my life when I read these was a rough one. I spent my weeks with my dad, but my weekends with my mom and her new husband. I hated going there so much. I didn’t have any friends there, where they lived. But I had this growing collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The concentration it took to make decisions and flip through the book was just enough more than reading anything else that it was a more complete escape from the turmoil around me as my mother and stepfather would have screaming matches.” A powerful testament to the anchoring nature of choice, indeed—and curiously, it seems that the simple act of being able to pick what you do, even if the consequences are dire, held many children in thrall.
Matt Staggs, a writer for Suvudu.com, liked the Lone Wolf ones the best. “But any of the original ones that (a) had a fantasy element and (b) had opportunities for gruesome death (with illustrations!) always thrilled me,” he says. And those “gruesome deaths” were always one of the most beloved features of the series—it’s interesting, then, that Kushner recalls the need to keep the violence down. “The ‘you’ character couldn’t kill anyone,” she says. “When they told me that, I remember thinking what? So the protagonist is allowed to die horribly, but can’t be a murderer? It was really frustrating!” Even without the option to kill others, however, many kids relished the potential for real consequences—I recall to this day the sudden flush of newfound determination after dying for what felt like the millionth time on The Planet of the Dragons—and given that series author Edward Packard recalls that The Worst Day of Your Life sold much better than The Luckiest Day of Your Life, it seems other children found the element of personal danger engaging, as well.
Still, for some, the unavoidably closed nature of the choices seemed limiting rather than liberating. Author Shanna Germain remembers feeling frustrated by the fact that while the novels presented “choice” as a selling point, there were only so many choices to be made. Shanna says, “I wanted more options—there were usually only two—and then I wanted the story to go on longer between the choices. Also, it often felt that the choices were too clearly delineated into ‘good vs. bad’ or ‘risky vs. safe.’ I wanted choices that would have made me think more carefully about the way I wanted to go in the story.”
Fantasy Magazine nonfiction editor Esther Inglis-Arkell, too, recalls a time when the “you” character was presented with what seemed to be two terrible choices. “I can’t remember the title of the book,” she says, “but it followed an ordinary kid through an ordinary school day where unusual events come up. I recall one thing was that a genie popped up and granted the kid one wish. First of all, one wish seemed very cheap, since I was accustomed to genies giving out three wishes. Then, I was annoyed when the text had two choices for the kid’s wish. One was something like a skateboard, which I had little interest in, and the other was that everything for the rest of the week would taste like pizza. Now, I loved pizza, but even as a child, I knew that a week in which everything tasted like pizza was a bad idea. I chose the first option, but when that was exhausted, I went back and read the second option. The kid found out quickly that when ice cream, milk, and even water tasted like pizza, life was no fun. I remember feeling very resentful of my avatar. I thought, ‘You got one wish and you messed it up completely!'”
It is fascinating, however, how much choice writers of the series were able to incorporate into books aimed at readers eight through twelve. Take a look at this dazzling Choose Your Own Adventure animation which depicts visually the number of paths and endings readers could have chosen; if you remember CYOA titles like The Cave of Time, The Third Planet from Altair, and Mystery of the Secret Room, you might enjoy seeing how many possibilities were open to you in each of those adventures.
Among all those possibilities, there were always “good” and “bad” choices—and that necessity proved challenging for the writers of the series. For Kushner, the distressing part of writing the series was that she came to the premise expecting things to follow standard narrative logic. “I thought of the cause and effect that exists in Arthurian stories, or fairy tales,” she says, “that courage and integrity should be rewarded. Then I turned in my very first draft and they said to me, ‘There’s a problem, here.’ Apparently, there was a formula I needed to be using. Endings for the series had nothing to do with logic—there simply had to be one-third happy endings, one-third bad, one-third neutral. But at first I couldn’t understand why people would want a bad ending, and that it had to be arbitrary, to boot. Sometimes, in the series, good choices had to yield bad endings—and that didn’t make sense to me! Then I realized that the endings weren’t the point. The adventures are the point, and that made so much more sense.”
For me, at least, that held true—I remember flipping ahead (cheating) to see if the story would end before deciding what to do. I did this by looking at the length of the next passage. I believed, perhaps erroneously, that shorter paragraphs meant more dire consequences. Knowing I was cheating, I’d pledge not to read anything that happened next—just see how much I’d have to read if I made that choice, or if the little options in italics appeared at the end of the paragraphs. I hated dying and ending the story due to my own poor decision-making; I felt like I’d failed a test or something—a feeling perhaps shared in part by Brad Deutsch, a physicist and all-around gentle soul, who believes the books “would have been much better if there were less of a sense of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the stories.” Packard’s perspective is interesting here, however, as he hoped “most readers would want to go back and make other choices and end up by reading most, if not all, of the entire book.”
Still, right or wrong, dead or alive, the Choose Your Own Adventure books provided their readership with a lot of rewarding experiences for such slender novels. Packard fondly recalls that he received many letters “from enthusiastic kids and from parents and teachers who were happy that my books helped their kids get more into reading.” Kushner has a similar perspective: “I was really trying to be subversive with mine, to transmit my values, not just in terms of being knightly and noble, but to just encourage kids to go have imaginative adventures in wonderful worlds. I tried to put little clues in to where children could find more of that sort of adventure, like how in Knights of the Round Table, it begins in a bookshop where Merlin is the owner. I was trying to be the gateway drug for young readers. It was literary activism!”
For some children, the series undeniably motivated them to seek out more and different kinds of novels; for others, the frisson of agency inspired budding writers or role players to create their own storylines. Whatever the case, for kids who followed the series, whether we sought out titles set in the old west, or in spooky haunted houses, or in fantastic imaginative realms, the appeal of the books remained the same, as obvious as it might seem.
We got to choose our own adventures.