You are reading a blog post about Choose Your Own Adventure, a series of books popular in the 1980s and noted for plot lines with multiple endings and a reader-as-protagonist framework. As your eyes scan the screen, the text branches into two sentences, each ending in hyperlinks.
To read about the history of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, click here.
To read about the bleak nihilism of the authors and the existential damage inflicted upon kids by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, click here.
The History of Choose Your Own Adventure
“You are practicing law in New York, supporting a family and paying the bills. But in your spare time, you also are writing children’s books,” wrote Scott Kraft in a 1981 profile of Choose Your Own Adventure creator Edward Packard. “What do you do? If you choose to remain a lawyer, this is the end of your story. But if you are Edward Packard, you chuck the law career and create children’s books in which young readers make decisions … and create their own stories.”
Though Packard came up with the first children’s novel that featured a branching plot, the concept of a story with multiple endings wasn’t new.
As author Grady Hendrix noted in his 2011 article on the Choose Your Own Adventure series, “The idea for interactive fiction was laid out by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941 in his short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’: A Chinese spy for Germany living in Great Britain discusses his ancestor’s ambition to write a vastly complex novel that is also a labyrinth wherein every branching path is determined by the reader’s choices.”
Packard got the idea for Choose Your Own Adventure not from Borges, but from a story he told his daughters at bedtime.
“I had a character named Pete and I usually had him encountering all these different adventures,” Packard recalled. But one night, he ran out of inspiration. “So I just asked [my daughters] what they would do.”
Based on the dueling plots provided by his kids, he wrote a book with alternate endings titled The Adventures of You on Sugar Cane Island, collected numerous rejections from publishers, and gave up on the project in 1970.
In 1976, however, his luck changed. And the Choose Your Own Adventure story got complicated.
R.A. Montgomery, owner of Vermont Crossroads Press, published The Adventures of You on Sugar Cane Island, then expanded Packard’s original concept into a series, The Adventures of You. The series got bounced over to Pocket Books, then was shopped to Bantam Books. Erstwhile publisher Montgomery tagged along as an author, signed a six-book contract with Bantam, and went on to write 60 Choose Your Own Adventure titles.
Bantam released the first Choose Your Own Adventure book in 1979. By 1986, 30 million copies of the series were in print; by 1998, there were more than 180 books in the series, which finally topped out at more than 250 million copies published in 38 languages.
The series didn’t go out of print until 2003.
Montgomery, who owned the rights to 141 of the novels, returned to his Vermont roots in 2006 and founded a new publishing house, Chooseco, to reissue updated editions of the classics, including By Balloon to the Sahara, Terror on the Titanic, Prisoner of the Ant People, and Island of Time.
The Choose Your Own Adventure name is still under copyright, but the branching plot concept is popular with writers to this day — including Edward Packard, whose U-Ventures® series, based on three of his original books, was released by Simon & Schuster in 2010.
To try your hand at writing a story in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, click here.
To read a never-before-released Choose Your Own Adventure ending, click here.
The Existential Dread of Choosing Your Own Adventure
R.A. Montgomery, original publisher of the first Choose Your Own Adventure books, noted in 2006, “Almost everyone who reads these books goes back to the beginning after reaching an ending, wondering what would have happened differently if they had made other decisions. It’s a very powerful tool for teaching as well as entertaining.”
But what were the Choose Your Own Adventure books teaching young readers in the 1980s?
Author Grady Hendrix observed a dark undercurrent to the Choose Your Own Adventure series:
“Many Choose Your Own Adventure fans at the time noted how fixated the books were on death. ‘One of the running jokes,” says Christian Swinehart, a graphic designer who has spent a lot of time studying the structure of the series, ‘is that every choice leads to death, more or less.’ [Author] Packard and Montgomery were determined to make the books feel ‘real.’ Whereas most children’s literature comes out of an educational tradition, which requires ‘good’ choices to result in victory and ‘bad’ choices to result in death, they wanted to keep the reader guessing.”
As a map created by Sean Michael Ragan of the many plots in one Choose Your Own Adventure book shows, the intricate complexity of these little novels, coupled with Packard and Montgomery’s desire to “keep the reader guessing,” means that finding your way out of the path of death was challenging, and landing on a happy ending was well-nigh impossible.
They were also teaching the concept of casual sexism.
Speaking with Publishers Weekly in 2007, Montgomery noted, “We have discovered that the gender split among the readers of these books is amazingly close. … More girls read the books by only one or two percentage points. The series really seems to be hooking boys and, we hope, helping them to develop a lifelong love of reading.”
Hooking boys and helping them. Not kids in general. Not girls.
This was not a slip of the tongue on Montgomery’s part.
As Hendrix discovered, boys were foremost in original publisher Bantam’s marketing plan as well.
Though series creator Edward Packard was scrupulous about keeping his protagonists gender neutral, “Bantam insisted it be a boy because they had market research that said girls would identify with boys but boys would never read a book where ‘you’ was a girl. That was a big problem because most of the covers were of boys and most of the illustrations were of boys.”
It was a move that Packard believes lost readers.
And then there were the weird books. These took a good, hard look at the violent surrealism of Andalusian Dog, turned to the preadolescent reader and said, “Hold my beer.”
Among the strangest, tallied by Cracked.com, are You Are a Shark with an ending in which you become a pig being raised for its meat; Hostage!, in which you are kidnapped and are given the option to turn terrorist à la Patty Hearst; and Hyperspace, in which “you learn that you are a character in a dream, and that if the bald, middle-aged coma patient dreaming about you wakes up, you’ll cease to exist.”
Nihilism, sexism, and the terrors of a bad acid trip.
But damn, were they fun.
To read the most diabolical Choose Your Own Adventure ending ever devised, click here.
To read a book with a single plot and no moral ambiguity, click here.