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Another Look at Choose Your Own Adventure Books

 

It is one of my most vivid memories of reading. I’m eight years old and in the family van, an ugly beige behemoth lacking air-conditioning. This is relevant because it’s summer, and the van, already steaming, is sitting in the center of a grocery-store parking lot, heat waves baking off the cement. My mom has gone inside to stock up. It’s nice and cool in there, but I choose to wait here. In fact, I’ve been waiting for this moment for days.

Invasion of the Black Slime (1983) was book 10 of a series called Which Way Books, one of many imitators of Choose Your Own Adventure Books.

I’m carrying with me a book called Invasion of the Black Slime, by R. G. Austin. It’s the kind of book I’ve been reading a lot lately, the kind where you make decisions on almost every page, then follow the page reference to see if your adventure continues or if you suffer a fate worse than death. (Or just death.) This book is particularly good and features three narrative tracks: a town called Silverlode being overtaken by evil ooze, a mad scientist rebuilding his son as a patchwork monster, and a journey through a haunted house.

It’s this last plotline that has me riveted. I’ve made it to the door of the haunted house. I’ve heard the moans from inside. I’ve felt the force pushing on the other side of the door. But I haven’t entered. Because, on page 82, Austin presents a warning:

“The next 17 pages are different from the rest of the book. There are no choices. If you decide to stay, you must read these pages in one sitting. You may not stop to get a snack or go to the bathroom. You may not talk on the phone or have a conversation with anybody. If you cannot give full attention to the pages, do not read them now.”

And then, for good measure, “This is your last chance to get out.”

Isolated in the van, my time had come. Thus I entered, palms sweating and not only because of the heat, scrutinizing each sentence with the reverence Austin demanded. It would not occur to me for decades the trick Austin had pulled on me and uncountable numbers of reluctant readers: for 17 pages, she’d faked us into reading a normal book by cloaking it as a dare.

Invasion of the Black Slime (1983) was book 10 of a series called Which Way Books, one of many imitators of Choose Your Own Adventure Books, a series that, for children of the eighties, needs no introduction. Launched in 1979 by Bantam, it was the brainchild of R. A. Montgomery and Edward Packard (who could forget those names?), who took concepts common to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and applied them to children’s books.

After Bantam “seeded” 100,000 copies of early titles into libraries, popularity exploded, and kids began collecting the books like trading cards. Parents and teachers loved them because of how the constant engagement got even nonreaders reading. Kids—this kid, anyway—loved them for other reasons.

To cut to the chase, when you read CYOAs, you died. A lot. You starved. You drowned. You were swallowed by a snake. You were torn apart by chimpanzees. You were sold for meat. Your entire universe imploded. Where else, in the squeaky-clean world of 1980s kidlit, did you get the illicit thrill of being slaughtered in such novel, horrific ways?

And it was always “you.” The second-person point of view, usually an eye-rolling choice in fiction, was immensely pleasurable here, with Montgomery, Packard, and crew cheekily taking it to you whenever you did something dumb. So unrelentingly dark were “The End” passages (“You cry out for mercy, but you know there will be none”) that, after a while, they came to be the affectionate ribbing of a good friend.

In my grade school, The Badlands of Hark (1985), a copycat effort penned by none other than R. L. Stine, held the reputation as the most hard-core of all interactive books.

In my grade school, The Badlands of Hark (1985), a copycat effort penned by none other than R. L. Stine, held the reputation as the most hard-core of all interactive books—Scholastic even offered to mail defeated readers the answer key. Stine warned you upfront that only one correct path existed through his unsparing death-machine, which introduced such kill-crazy monsters as the xlarmada, graxxa, smarph, and glamp. (Decades later, I still hate that glamp.) Stine doled out demises with rare mirth: “You have been eaten by a nearsighted marsh cow. This is truly a bit of bad luck since most marsh cows have excellent eyesight. GAME OVER.”

With even clone series doing bang-up business, hundreds of millions of copies of the original CYOA books were soon in print and on their way to becoming the fourth-highest-selling series of all time. The CYOA authors, then, did what any power-mad, success-fueled artists might have done: they went a little nuts.

In some ways, this was good. Packard’s Hyperspace was the kind of crazy you never forget, an adolescent acid trip involving experimental physics, puzzling doppelgängers, inescapable story loops, dreams within dreams, another CYOA book embedded inside the book, and an appearance by none other than Packard himself, who, unfortunately, can’t remember how the book ends. How many other interactive books featured ennui-laden choices like, “If you feel it’s hopeless to do anything and you might as well go back and accept your fate, turn to page 59“?

Another high point was Packard’s Inside UFO 54-40, which began with a “Special Warning” regarding the goal of reaching Planet Ultima: “No one can get there by making choices or following instructions!” Other characters reiterate this, shattering the very rules upon which fans had come to depend. Readers could find Ultima but only by mistakenly happening upon page 101, which begins, “You did not make a choice, or follow any directions, but now, somehow, you are descending from space. . . . It is a miracle you got here, but that is perfectly logical, because Ultima is a miracle itself.”

Such experimental riffing could not succeed indefinitely. If the title of You Are a Shark (1985) doesn’t tip you off, the forty-fifth entry into the CYOA series was indicative of a franchise running on fumes. This particular mess involved you being constantly, befuddlingly reincarnated into animals: cat, eagle, elephant, whale, bear, pig, dog, lion, sea lion, albatross, gorilla, octopus, horse, zebra, mosquito(!), and tree(?!). Oh, and the shark? Sure, you can be a shark, if only for 2 quick pages.

Brand-new CYOA books are now being published by Chooseco (who continue to reprint the originals), which is just one testament to their seismic influence and popularity. Another, of course, is how the decision-making format has yet to exit the publishing landscape. In its heyday, CYOA-licensed series and their knockoffs hosted such intellectual properties as Goosebumps, Animorphs, Star WarsStar Trek, Indiana Jones, and Doctor Who.

The forty-fifth entry into the CYOA series was indicative of a franchise running on fumes.

More recent homages, however, have included Jason Shiva’s graphic-novel mind-melter Meanwhile (2010); the unexpectedly sober adult title You Are a Cat! (2011); Ryan North’s hit Shakespeare adaptation To Be or Not to Be: That Is the Adventure (2013); and the self-explanatory Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Biography (2014).

If you want to read this article’s conclusion, turn to p.81.

If you want to explore the dark cave, turn to p.82.

* * *

p. 81

To survive these books, readers like me had to master a multiple-bookmark technique, which allowed you to reverse-engineer calamitous trajectories without having to start from the beginning. This helped me, and no doubt many others, become better thinkers and writers by making us aware of narrative options and assumptions, even while the books joyfully trashed literature’s established order of dramatic arcs, character development, and (especially in kidlit) a sense of moral conscience—often the “right” choice got you laser-beamed into oblivion.

There wasn’t one way a story could end, these books told us. There were infinite ways, so many that even you, dear reader and future writer, might be able to come up with a few of your own.

* * *

p. 82

The cave is nearly black, but a bright object shines through the cobwebs. You inch forward and pick it up, only to have it attach its suction claws into your flesh. It’s a glamp! And what did I say about glamps?

GAME OVER

This article originally appeared in Booklist.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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