Choosing Our Own Adventures, Then and Now

"BEWARE and WARNING!" begins R.A. Montgomery's The Abominable Snowman, book 1 in the recently repackaged Choose Your Own Adventure series you used to know and love. 

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"BEWARE and WARNING!" begins R.A. Montgomery's The Abominable Snowman, book 1 in the recently repackaged Choose Your Own Adventure series you used to know and love. "This book is different from other books. You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story. There are dangers, choices, adventures and consequences. YOU must use all of your numerous talents and much of your enormous intelligence. The wrong decision could end in disaster—even death. But, don't despair. At anytime, YOU can go back and make another choice, alter the path of your story, and change its result.... You and your best friend Carlos have traveled to Nepal in search of the fabled Yeti or abominable snowman..."

If you were a kid during the '80s and read any books at all, you probably read at least one Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA), probably by either R.A. Montgomery or Edward Packard. And if you read one, you read more than one. They were addictive, candy for our brains, but also, they empowered us in a way that normal books did not. At key plot points, the reader got to make decisions that actually changed the course of the story. For example: "If you make a hasty retreat to your car, [upon being attacked by a bunch of monkeys] turn to page 29." Alternatively, "If you decide that the chimpanzees are not as dangerous as they look and rush to give aid to the man, turn to page 3." Many of us simply could not choose, or chose both, and so we read them twice, or thrice, or we simply read all of the endings, or we read the whole book with our fingers placed at various points so we could backtrack and try again if things didn't go as hoped. For a lot of us, growing up as we did in our early-computer existences (remember Atari?), this was our first dose of "interactivity."

That doesn't mean that the era of the Choose Your Own Adventure has ended, even if it is some 30 years (egad) after the original series began. One recent example of updated Choose Your Own Adventure-type books is the "What if" series, which began in 2006. They're dubbed "Choose Your Destiny" novels by Random House and written by Liz Ruckdeschel and Sara James. "She's all yours," promises the book cover, of the character, Haley Miller, who starts off in book 1 at 15, the new girl at a New Jersey public high school, where the reader must help her forge her way. By book 8 in the series, it's "Time to send Haley off into the world. Are you ready?"

Even more recently, Nancy Mercado of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Macmillan, purchased North American rights to a new Y.A. series called Most Likely To, by Bridie Clark, the author of Because She Can, a fictionalized account of working for Judith Regan. The first book in the series is slated for Spring 2013 and the second for Winter 2014. "It's the most compulsively readable thing I’ve ever edited," Mercado says. The book is told in the second person, with the nameless main character (You), a scholarship student, learning the ropes at an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. "All these things happen that you have to decide," says Mercado, who confessed her love for the original CYOA books. "You go to a party. Do you leave your dorky guy friend behind or do you take him with you? Sometimes if you make the right choice you get rewarded; you get to meet your dorky guy friend’s cool cousin. It’s kind of wish fulfillment."

The same elements that drew us to CYOA books in the '80s and '90s are at work again here: The ability to live vicariously though a character (an aspect of any novel) is even more actionable than in other fiction because we actually get to make decisions for the characters—assuming the author has written those options in, of course. These decisions have repercussions, often major ones: Some point to a "fixation on death" that appears to run through the original series. There are obviously stakes here—decisions are made; consequences are had.

CYOA-esque books like the What if series and Clark's upcoming books bring us some new female-oriented plot lines about school and dating and social lives (as if informed by, say, Gossip Girl), that the old CYOA books, typically focused on adventure, fantasy, or horror—anything, really, but romance!—didn't offer. But the aspect of making a choice for your character, and seeing it through, is the same. "Whatever you decide, your night changes," says Mercado of Most Likely To. "There’s a really annoying guy in a band who wants to just tell you about his music, do you put up with him or do you see through it and go? You saw someone maybe slip a pill in someone’s drink, do you convince yourself you didn’t see it, or do you address it and be willing to take the fallout?"

Along with reinvigorated plots and new themes, CYOA-type books now have the potential to become digitally interactive, though they're by and large appearing in print as well. Mercado says, "In terms of the e-book, it will be really interesting. I keep harkening back to CYOA, where I never wanted to commit to one path. I always had multiple fingers holding a page, and you just had to make your way through. With e-books, it’s going to be a whole different thing: You can hold your place, you can make a bookmark, you can go back and change your choice." Maybe this is something that young readers have grown to expect. R.A. Montgomery told The Atlantic Wire, "CYOA has less of a novelty factor than it did in the 1980s. Interactive entertainment is pervasive, largely through gaming. Although even Facebook and Twitter could be construed to be a form of it."

Before Twitter and Facebook and the pervasive technology that impacts our lives, there were R.A., or Ray, Montgomery and Edward Packard, credited with originating CYOA. They met in 1976, when Montgomery was running Vermont Crossroads Press; Packard approached him with a manuscript called Sugarcane Island. Montgomery, who had a background in interactive role-playing games published it under the series name, "The Adventures of You," which would later be named "Choose Your Own Adventure" by Bantam. Packard went to another publisher, Lippincott, for his next two books, "Choose Your Own Adventure in the Wild West" and "Choose Your Own Adventure in Outer Space." Montgomery continued with "The Adventures of You" series, writing Adventures Under the Sea under a pen name.

Montgomery told us, "Game theory became a part of my outlook and that transitioned into Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are in essence mini-simulation games with You as the major role profile confronted with many decisions and choices to make." However, he doesn't take all the credit for the idea. He says, "There were many others who lead the way in interactive literature for both adults and kids before Choose started. Raymond Queneau authored a popular play in the late '50s that roughly translates as "Story as You Like It" which allowed the audience to choose the direction and outcome of the play. Julio Cortazar published Hopscotch in 1966, an adult spy mystery that once again allowed you the reader to make the choices about what to read next. The Trackers series for kids was published in London by Penguin in the '70s and was quite popular.  And there were others. CYOA was simply in the right place at the right time with lots of ideas."

Packard says, of the books and themes he created, "I proceeded by imagining adventures that I or others would like to take. Often research was required. Themes were typical of what you'd find in the realm of (mostly boys) adventure stories and in science fiction. I never had any trouble thinking of plots." He adds, "Incidentally, as far as I know, and notwithstanding Ray's comments, no previous book or series that antedated my first book, Sugarcane Island, had the same three elements: written in the second person––about you; you make decisions leading to multiple plot lines; and these lead to multiple endings."

The books were a success. Bantam, which later became a division of Random House, acquired the franchise, and between 1979 and 1999 published 184 titles in the original series and almost 100 additional spin-off titles. It's unclear how many are circulating at this point. Per, "Over 250 million books were printed in 38 languages, making Choose Your Own Adventure the fifth best-selling book series of all time. Only Harry Potter, Enid Blyton, and Goosebumps have sold more books."

After Random House abandoned the CYOA trademark, Montgomery registered it, founding Chooseco, a small publisher focused on republishing the original books and also creating new ones. (In a piece on CYOA in Slate in 2011, Grady Hendrix reported, "Packard and Montgomery had a falling out and are no longer on speaking terms, but each continues to fly the interactive-fiction flag.") As for that 250 million figure, they disagree as well: Packard says it's "wildly inflated" and he'd guess 40 million of the classics are out there, while Chooseco Publisher Shannon Gilligan told The Atlantic Wire that since that number came out, there've been another 5 million put in print, so it's more like 255 million, along with being published in 43 languages in the past 30 years.

Packard is now working on an adult novel and told the Wire he's not interested in writing more interactive books in the CYOA-genre. Over the past few years, however, he's revised, expanded, and adapted three of his orignal CYOA books for release as U-Ventures apps at the iTunes store. "Of course there's a lot you can do in this format that you can't do in a printed book," he says. "There is no limit to the number of pages, so in a scene where you are swimming, trying to get to shore, you can keep swiping pages and you only encounter more scenes of the sea. Your frustration and uncertainty mimic what you'd feel in reality. In one scene you have to make a repair on our spaceship and the computer says there will be a catastrophic failure in 20 seconds. The reader has to solve the problem in real time: The countdown of time remaining is shown on the screen. We have light and sound effects. The computer remembers where you've been, which can affect what you know and what happens when you reach a certain locale and if and when you come back to it." (Simon & Schuster have been releasing print versions of the apps since March.)

Gilligan and Montgomery, however, are keeping primarily to print. "It took a while for us to figure out why digital editions made the interactive reading experience worse. It has something mysterious to do with tactile involvement in making choices as 'You the hero...'" says Gilligan. However, they are rolling out books in some technologically advanced formats: "We have just adapted one of the books for younger readers, Your Very Own Robot, as an interactive cartoon meant to be played on a tablet.  We are also in the process of slowly rolling out the books on eReaders in a way that we think finally works.  CYOA on the early generations of Kindle was not a beautiful thing." They continue to publish traditionally as their main business, however, and during a 2007 relaunch of old titles put forward some new books as well. "The interest and passion for the interactive paradigm seems undimmed," says Gilligan. "People love being at the center of the story making decisions.  Obviously tons of adults who grew up on them are buying them for their own children. As for new themes, does a zombie title count?"

But the formula and plot lines of the old CYOAs are not just fodder for nostalgia. Of course there's nostalgia, enough for Jonah Peretti to create a Choose-Your-Own Adventure Twitter thread back in 2010. But a look back at some of the books reminds us, also, of the power they gave us as kids, to make some unprecedented choices, for once in our young lives! Also, they were plain and simple kind of awesome, fast-paced reads. Take the opening to House of Danger: 

It is a Tuesday afternoon in late June. You are on your way down to your lab in your parents' basement when the phone rings. You dash into the lab and pick it up. 

"I need, I need..." says a weak voice. You hear a loud click, and the phone goes dead. 

What do you do? Turn the page.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.