When I was a child, Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) was the most exciting series of books in the world. Not just your simple ‘start on page one and progress numerically until you reach the end’, oh no. These stories had up to 40 – count ‘em – 40 potential endings. Which one you got depended on the choices you made throughout the story; each twist and turn had the possibility of sending you in completely different directions. Make a bad decision and your journey could end right away, meaning you had to go back to the beginning and start again.
The CYOA stories were aimed at readers aged between 10 and 14 years old and they differed from most children’s literature of the time as they were written in the second person, i.e. ‘You are standing at the entrance to a narrow cave…’ or ‘You can see the knight on his horse up ahead.’ This immediately immersed you in the adventure; you weren’t just a passive reader, you were already part of the action!
The original set of 184 classic books (by a total of 30 writers) had exciting names like ‘Lost on the Amazon, ‘Tattoo of Death’, ‘Secret of the Ninja’ and ‘Beyond Escape’, which made you want to leap right in and play the hero, so that you could save the day. Or ruin it all, if you made a bad decision, of course…
Gaming enthusiasts will recognise that the series’ origins were firmly based in role playing; this time in the form of a story that unfolds with each page turn, rather than a click of a mouse or the roll of a dice. The idea for these innovative books arose in 1976, when US author and publisher (under the name of Vermont Crossroads Press) R.A. Montgomery was approached by author Edward Packer, who introduced him to his text for ‘Sugarcane Island’. Packer’s daughters had inspired him to come up with the concept of a tale with multiple endings whilst he was inventing bedtime stories for them.
Montgomery published ‘Sugarcane Island’ as the first in a series called ‘Adventures of You’. When Packer, however, chose to give the rights of his next book to a bigger publisher in the hope of more sales, Montgomery carried on the series by writing his own story, ‘Journey Under the Sea’ (using the pseudonym Robert Mountain) and publishing that in 1977.
In 1978 Montgomery relinquished his part in Vermont Crossroads Press (VCP), but kept hold of the rights to his new series. He took it Bantam Books that same year, hoping to garner interest from their new children’s department. And interested they were; Montgomery was signed up to produce a further six books for them. To help fulfil this he asked Packer and one other former VCP contributor to write the stories alongside him, which were then published under the new – and now well-known - name of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’.
This series captured children’s imaginations from the get-go, and between 1979 and 1999 184 different titles were created, plus almost 100 others spin-offs. The authors created stories in almost every known genre, featuring scenes set on Earth (both above ground, underground and under water), in space and in many fantasy locations, taking place in the past, present and future.
To keep the series exciting, the writers also experimented with the format; some books had pathways that repeatedly took the reader back to the same place in the story, whilst some endings would only be reached if you found the page by accident. As the number of books published increased then the stories became more involved, with longer sections between each ending. This could mean that instead of 40 potential endings, you could have as few as 8 instead.
Endings to the stories could be positive (you saved somebody or something or you achieved your goal) or negative (occasionally ending with the demise of either you or your adventuring buddies, although death in CYOA could often mean simply a transformation into some kind of other-worldly being).
The books were incredibly popular, going global with over a quarter of a billion books being printed and translated into 38 different languages. This pushed the CYOA empire into fourth place in the list of best-selling kids’ series of all time. Alongside the originals, several other sub-series of CYOA ran alongside, including one for two levels of younger readers (the text was less complicated, and the content was more appropriate for their ages) as well as specials based on Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Disney. There was also a horror-based collection called Choose Your Own Nightmare, a slightly more educational set subtitled ‘Passport’ (where you played a world-travelling news reporter) and two ‘Super’ adventures, which were longer, with more complicated plots.
Bantam allowed the series to end in 1999, and for the next five years no new books were written. When the trademark lapsed Montgomery took it on and formed a new publishing house, Chooseco, to bring them back to life. They exclusively republished many of the original titles (plus writing several completely new tales), rebranded the young readers’ series Dragonlarks and created The Golden Path – a set of books which feature one progressing story throughout them all, with choices in one novel leading to starting points in the next.
Chooseco also gave license to McGraw –Hill Education, allowing them to adjust three-quarters of their reissued stories for non-native English speakers to use as teaching aids for language lessons. The CYOA series has been lauded throughout education circles as an excellent way to engage children with reading through their interactivity.
A CYOA DVD – The Abominable Snowman - came out in 2006 allowing viewers to involve themselves in the action on screen by making choices via their remote control to reach one of eleven possible endings. The cast was led, impressively, by William H. Macy (Fargo and ER, amongst many other film and television roles) and included Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill.
CYOA is a much copied concept – after Bantam Books realised how successful the stories were they began to create three further series in the same mould with other authors. Just under twenty other sets of books, all following the same kind of format, were devised by other publishers around the same time. None, however, became as famous as Choose Your Own Adventure; books that, amazingly, managed to keep high levels of intrigue and excitement through the entire original run of stories.