The Perils of Choose Your Own Adventure Books

The series allowed children to build their own story—but it also created false perceptions about decision-making.

Lisa Sciascia / fstop / Corbis

I should probably start by saying that I’m bad at decisions. Lots of people say that, I know. But most people have never agonized so deeply over which of two New York City apartments to take that they had a full-fledged panic attack and lost both of said apartments because the landlords decided they were a weirdo. Most people have never debated so deeply a chance to spend a year after college teaching in Greece that when they arrived in Athens after months of agonizing, the school didn’t expect them because they had changed their mind so many times.

I can attribute my decision problems to many things: anxiety, my type A-wanting-to-get-everything-right-ism, a journalistic tendency to know all the info before I chose anything. I also attribute a very small part of these problems to Choose Your Own Adventure.

Published from 1979 to 1998, Choose Your Own Adventure is a series of children’s books, many of which are still circulating around libraries and used bookstores everywhere. Told in the second person, the books make the reader the main character and ask You to dictate the path the story takes. In the very first Choose Your Own Adventure, for example, The Cave of Time, You are exploring a cave in Snake Canyon when You suddenly realize the sun has set and you are lost. Do you try to go back home? If so, turn to page 8. Or do you stay where you are for the night? Then turn to page 10. Turning to page 8 may take you to another cave or a medieval kingdom or may lead you to meet Abe Lincoln. (Seriously. In The Cave of Time, you can end up on a train with Abe Lincoln.) Turning to page 10 could lead you to another dimension entirely, or maybe you could end up stuck as a fisherman in the year 980.

Choose Your Own Adventure ostensibly asks the reader to take stock of her surroundings and make the best-informed choices possible. But perhaps because they were written in the 1970s and 1980s, the Choose Your Own Adventure books have no shortage of bad endings. In fact, just about every judgment you make can lead to death or ruin. Choose incorrectly, and you turn the page, and there they are, beneath a block of text, the bone-shaking words The End. You die. Sometimes in horrible ways. There’s even a blog, You Chose Wrong, documenting all the grisly ways these books end.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books terrified me because they made it so clear that choices are either right or wrong. In the book Inside UFO 54-40, for example, the wrong choice leads you to solitary confinement on a spaceship until you become disoriented by the “incredible loneliness of outer space” and lose “all will to survive” (The End). In House of Danger, you can be devoured by a pack of snarling chimpanzees. In The Cave of Time, a misstep can transport you to the middle of a war, with bombs exploding all around. You could awake to a boa constrictor wrapped around your neck, or sink with the Titanic.

One of the original authors of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Edward Packard, ended up writing a book for adults called All It Takes: The 3 Keys to Making Wise Decisions and Not Making Stupid Ones. (The three keys: Have the right state of mind, think clearly, and keep decisions under surveillance.) But in the actual books, it’s almost impossible to know, before you turn the page, what is a wise decision and what isn’t. In The Cave of Time, for instance, you’re stuck as a fisherman in medieval times, when you hear about a cave in the bottom of a lake where a monster lives. If you decide to seek it out and dive to the bottom of the lake (because it might lead you back to your time), you end up safe and sound back where you began at Snake Canyon. If, as any sensible person would do, you decide not to dive to the bottom of a lake that houses a monster, you end up devoured by the Loch Ness monster. How is any child going to learn about rational choices from that sequence of events?

Of course, one of the best parts about Choose Your Own Adventure was the ability to cheat. Turn down the corner of a page that asks you to make a tough choice, and then, if those terrible words, The End, pop up when you turn the page, just go back and choose the other thing. In this way, young readers learn that no decision is final, and that if you don’t get what you want, you can always go back and have a do-over. I distinctly remember keeping my finger on one page and going over all the various ends until I found the one that I thought was best. Perhaps this gave me  unreasonable expectations for getting it right every single time, or trained me to think that I had more control over my life than I actually did.

The Cave of Time / Bantam

To be sure, the Choose Your Own Adventure books were works of fiction, and it probably wasn’t reasonable of me to take away such deep life lessons from a book like The Cave of Time, which has both a spaceship and cavemen on the cover. But as a child who read a lot of books, including Holocaust stories in which the wrong choice could indeed be fatal, I learned to face every choice with the knowledge that there are terrible outcomes possible. “There is never a day in which you are not confronted with choice. Some seemingly small choices can determine the path of the rest of your life,” one of the Choose Your Own Adventure authors, R.A. Montgomery, has said. No pressure or anything.

Today’s young(ish) people have a lot more choices than our parents did: We don’t have to marry to come up with enough income to make a life, and we can live wherever we want and fly back home with the aid of cheap plane tickets, and keep in touch thanks to the Internet. But with those choices come risks. And if Choose Your Own Adventure taught me anything that continues to be relevant today, it’s that the more choices you make, the higher the chance that you’re going to screw something up—a recently defined phenomenon known as decision fatigue.

My neuroses from Choose Your Own Adventure aren’t directly related to the outcomes in the book. I know, rationally, that if I choose a certain apartment, I’m (probably) not going to end up in medieval Europe or pursued by angry chimpanzees. But I do miss the way Choose Your Own Adventure books allowed me to look into the future and see what happens with one choice or another. That was a crutch that I learned from reading the books that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in real life.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to remember that most of the lessons I learned from Choose Your Own Adventure books are hogwash. There are no strictly right or wrong choices. The Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist. Decisions are just about picking something based on the evidence you have available, and making the best out of it. And there is no turning back. End up stuck in solitary confinement in outer space? Don’t flip back and see where you went wrong. Move forward, making the best out of the things you chose. In reality, they very rarely lead to The End.