How an 80s children's book series led to a Booker prize.
The Guardian (c) 2023
The hero of a kid’s book doesn’t usually die. There are of course exceptions, (spoilers ahead) like Charlotte of the Web, Old Yeller, and Leslie Burke. But these often come as narrative shocks that reframe the tale. In Choose Your Own Adventure books, a children’s series that sold over 270 million copies in 40 languages from 1979 to 1998, the hero dies multiple times, in unpleasant, unexpected and often grotesque ways. And that hero happens to be You.
You, the reader, addressed in the second person, make choices every few pages, to find out Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?, to seek The Lost Jewels of Nabooti, uncover The Secret of the Pyramids, or escape being a Prisoner of the Ant People. And while some endings can be deemed happy, with one or two perfect conclusions per book, in most scenarios, you end up dead.
You can get eaten by insects, rodents, goblins or intergalactic meat packers. Stabbed by ghosts, lanced by knights, or executed by gangsters. You fall down mineshafts, off cliffs, into wormholes, and perish in every conceivable natural catastrophe. But none of these truly come as narrative shocks.
The Choose Your Own Adventure books found nerdy kids in Colombo in the 80s, much like they did suburban kids around the world; first in school libraries and then in bookshops, right next to the Hardy Boys and Enid Blytons that our parents used to recommend. All there was to entice us here, were the provocative titles, the intriguing cover art and the promise that you could choose from up to 33 endings. (These numbers varied, as did the methods of death.)
Of course, it was the covers that grabbed us, those iconic white sleeves with red branding and an arch-shaped portal which was our gateway into genre fiction. The heroes and nemeses of spy thrillers, space operas, westerns, fantasies, horrors, and time travel escapades gaped at us through that mysterious portal, promising an adventure of our own choosing, packaged into 100 pages with many possible outcomes.
Two names dominated the early books: Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Packard, a New York lawyer, stumbled on the idea in the 1960s, as many kids’ books writers do, by making up bedtime stories for his daughters. Unable to decide on one ending for a tale, he created strange stories of forking paths, where his children could provide the direction and plot the fate of the lead character.
R. A. Montgomery was an independent publisher in Vermont who read the first book ‘Sugarcane Island’ in 1975, after it had been shopped around and rejected for most of that decade. After a few false starts and disappointments, he found a home for the series at Bantam, who commissioned a dozen books in 1981, setting in motion a prolific and lucrative partnership - for two decades at least.
The early titles, which feature illustrator Paul Granger’s quirky and beguiling artwork, remain the most collectible on the internet, at least among Gen-X’s looking to bequeath their nostalgia to their distracted Gen Z kids. While the covers didn’t always tell the truth, (the enigmatic sorcerer on the front of the first book, The Cave of Time, does not feature in the story), but images like the humpback whale surrounded by cold war spies in Your Code Name is Jonah, the feral chimps in House of Danger (later made into an interactive video game), and the eponymous blood-sucker in Vampire Express did the job of parting 10-year-old kids from their pocket money, in exchange for a selection of vicarious deaths.
While 184 titles were published over the next two decades, employing dozens of imaginative writers and skilled illustrators, for the early adopters like us, Messrs. Packard, Montgomery and Granger remain the OGs. Packard’s books were twisted genre tales peppered with black humour. Montgomery’s were high concept stories, usually set in exotic locations across space and time.
Leslie Jamison in her excellent essay in the New Yorker, interviews a nonagenarian Edward Packard, and talks about how each protagonist of a Choose Your Own Adventure book contained ‘multitudes’ that a young reader could explore. It wasn’t always easy to predict or direct your fate. Packard’s stories appeared to follow more ‘logical cause-and-effect correlations between choices and their outcomes’ while Montgomery’s ‘read more like fever dreams.’
It was possible to follow a sensible set of options in one reading and a more adventurous path in another. Though neither guaranteed that you wouldn’t end up in the jaws of a sabretooth.
The unnamed ‘You’ in each of the books was originally meant to be a gender-neutral figure, sometimes equipped with specialist skills, like archery in The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest or computer wizardry in Supercomputer, but largely remained a blank slate for the reader to imbue with character traits. The illustrations depicted a young, predominantly male, somewhat androgynous hero, as successive publishers at Bantam, Doubleday, Dell and other imprints bowed to the age-old wisdom that girls may read stories with boy heroes but never the vice versa.
Some of the more surreal endings were no doubt designed to warp young minds and keep the overworked writers entertained. These involved being reincarnated as a slaughterhouse pig with human consciousness (You Are A Shark), being sawn in half by a trans-dimensional portal (Inside UFO 54-40), being sent to a school for terrorists (Hostage!), or melting into the stars in a 2001-esque odyssey (Space and Beyond). There are websites and supercuts dedicated to the myriad ends of a Choose Your Own Adventure, a rabbithole almost as entertaining as the adventures themselves.
In Hyperspace, you get to meet author Edward Packard in the 5th dimension and then watch him being ripped apart in a cosmic anomaly. You also end up in the dream of an old man and are told you will die when he wakes up. But the greatest ending would have to be Ultima from Inside UFO 54-40, where after being abducted by aliens and paraded in an intergalactic zoo, you are told to find the paradise planet of Ultima. The only way to reach Ultima is by cheating. By ignoring all the options and forking paths and going straight to the ultimate conclusion on page 102.
Was this a zen koan for 10 year olds about finding enlightenment by rejecting rules and conventional pathways? Or a tacit acknowledgement from the writers and publishers that everyone cheats?
Every reader of these books would ignore the Warning! at the beginning of each book, that stated that you cannot go back once a decision is made. You could flip back a few pages and undo a bad decision. And then hope for the best. You tried out every option and scenario in every story until you found that golden ending.
R.L. Stine once joked that his Goosebump series was merely a ‘training-bra for Stephen King.’ The Choose Your Own Adventure books never pretended to be high literature, but they did serve as a literary gateway for curious young readers, an entry point for the airport thrillers, pulp horrors, hard sci-fi stories and thick fantasy novels that consumed our teenage years and beyond.
The demise of the franchise was of course predictable. It had occupied a cultural sweet spot in the 80s, just before the rise of role-playing gamebooks like Dungeons and Dragons, and before our hand-held game consoles became fully immersive and interactive video narrative machines, now available in VR.
After numerous shuffles with publishing houses, the series languished in the 1990s, before being discontinued in 1999 and its trademark allowed to lapse. R. A. Montgomery and his spouse Shannon Gilligan resurrected the franchise under the Chooseco company and reissued the back catalogue with new artwork and interactive elements. Edward Packard rebooted his iconic titles under a new company called U-ventures.
The books may not quite be the cultural phenomena they were in the 80s, but they still shift close to a million copies each year. They are referenced by overgrown Gen Xers, in movies like Knives Out (the late great Christopher Plummer played a murder victim named Harlowe Thrombey), in celebrity autobiographies like Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography and famously in the last Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch, where Netflix was eventually sued by Chooseco claiming copyright infringement. Netflix countered that the term and concept of Choose Your Own Adventure was now in generic parlance and the lawsuit was settled out of court.
It is true that this phenomenal series has entered the vernacular and been ceaselessly imitated, though rarely bettered. There is a Choose Your Own Adventure exhibit open at the Story Museum in Oxford, and that bastion of 80s nostalgia Stranger Things has recently released its own franchise book titled Heroes and Monsters which charts the unexplored forking paths of Season 4 of the series.
But for this writer, there remains far more than nostalgia and gruesome deaths. When attempting my last novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, I was confronted with the challenge of getting a dead man to narrate an entire novel in the 2nd person. While some claimed it to be fool’s errand, inspired by a franchise of 184 books written in the 2nd person, that dealt with death, metaphysics, mysteries and our place in the universe, I boldly replied, why ever not? ‘If you choose to attempt a novel in the 2nd person, turn to page 100 and proceed to type.’ In the end, that’s what I chose. And in the end, the outcome proved not too unfavourable.