The Surprising Legacy of Choose Your Own Adventure Books


AT SOME POINT in 1987 I made an important career decision. By the age of seven I understood that making a living as a doctor or firemen or power forward was for losers. Instead, I would dedicate myself to the most respectable job I knew: Ninja.

A lifetime surrounded by throwing stars seemed like a dream gig after reading Choose Your Own Adventure’s Secret of the Ninja. I was not one of those gifted children who translated Proust in lieu of afternoon episodes of Ducktails. When that book found me, I had grown too old for GI Joe and He-Man, but too young for R-Rated movies. In other words, the ideal audience for a book that turned you into a ninja.

I read Ninja more than any other book during childhood. Its labyrinth of plot possibilities and kung-fu ass kickery kept me hungry for more. In a strange twist, I eventually abandoned that highly realistic dream of filing my taxes with “NINJA” penned into the occupation box upon realizing I would probably have to, you know, run a mile or do a chin-up to keep from being fired or stabbed or whatever happens to ninjas. In fact, this fear of physical activity led me to the exact opposite career path of ninjas. I became a writer.

But even that employment leap wouldn’t have been possible without the Choose Your Own Adventure stories. There was something in those books I couldn’t understand. The fork-in-the-road storytelling model empowered a young man like myself. Until recently I didn’t realize that the magic of Choose Your Own Adventure wasn’t the fantastic stories or the unique method of storytelling.

The secret is the second person.

“I’ve always loved the second person. It is the person of mystery,” says Luke Csehak, leader of psychedelic Vermont pop group, Happy Jawbone Family Band. “This is something that rock and roll has known for some time. Think about Bob Dylan, now there’s a guy who’s made his millions off of the second person.”

Csehak and I are discussing a mutual love of the second person-centric children’s book line. After discovering one Happy Jawbone Family Band album reissue this summer, I revisited my old passion for Choose Your Own Adventure books. And after I thought about it, I began to notice a strange trend in pop culture. Csehak and countless other millennials seem to have been just as inspired as myself by Choose’s knack for repurposing content. From Choose Your Own album liner notes, to novels, stage plays and even Hollywood films, our internet age mashup mentality has finally caught up with Choose Your Own Adventure’s open-ended format. It only took 40 years.

“A lot of people who now work in the development or technology space cite Choose as an inspiration for their work–we’ve caught references at several TED talks,” says Choose Your Own Adventure’s Publisher, Shannon Gilligan. “In popular culture, it sometimes surprises us what reminds people of Choose.”

There is much to remind people, because I was only one of a stunning number of people who ate these books alive when they filtered through schoolyards. But their road to popularity was a trip much like the books themselves: full of dead ends, cutbacks, hidden pathways.

Choose Your Own Adventure’s second person obsession was born in the early 1970s. New Englanders Ed Packer and R.A. Montgomery created the first books, which floated between various small publishers until Bantam acquired the rights in 1979. During the next two decades the books became a staple of Scholastic book sales and youthful reading sprees, selling nearly 250 million copies. In 1998 Montgomery took control of the books again and went on to pedal an additional 10 million. 185 titles have been published all together. Chances are, if you are under 40, you grew up making you-focused literary leaps, such as this one from Secret of the Ninja:

If you think you should try and track down the donor of the sword, turn to page 79

If you think it’s a good idea to go back in time, turn to page 20.

Thanks to the book line’s stunning popularity, Choose Your Own Adventure now has its fingerprints across the fun house mirror that is the pop culture spectrum in 2014.

For instance there has been a mini-theatrical revolution for the past few years as several Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired stage plays have sprouted up, including one that applies the famous second person framework to Shakespeare.

More intriguing are the multiple Choose Your Own Adventure-styled novels aimed at grownup readers, including You are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero and The Terrible, Horrible Temp-to-Perm Debacle.

One of the most popular novels has been Super Giant Monster Time. Author Jeff Burk describes the book as: “An adult Choose Your Own Adventure that is also my tribute to Japanese giant monster flicks and punk rock.” Burk expanded the possibilities of the schizophrenic storytelling device to places the children’s version never could. After juggling interwoven plots between note cards and computer files, he used the platform to challenge his sophisticated readership, who had grown out of the limited kiddie fare like Choose Your Own Adventure: The Phantom Submarine. “The average classic Choose Your Own Adventure book had anywhere between twelve to twenty endings. I got in my head that mine would have over fifty!”

While all this stoked the nostalgic fires inside me, the most thrilling pop culture possibilities are not even literary. When Happy Jawbone Family Band recently reissued its 2010 album Hotel Double Tragedy on vinyl, Csehak reached back to his own youth to pen the record’s liner notes, creating a 26-page history of the fictitious hotel in Choose Your Own Adventure format. While liner notes are normally reserved for droll details of who recorded what and where, Csehak’s story comes off more like surrealist Choose Your Own Adventure poetry where you’re given page-ending choices like “Submit to the wolf” or “Go listen to music.”

The seven-year-old boy inside me was stoked to discover that this successful dip into the second person pool inspired Happy Jawbone Family Band to explore Choose Your Own Adventure’s musical potential, as well. “I’ve been talking to a software development firm about creating a new music file where, instead of having one file that plays the same way every time, it would be a music file that is a little bit different every time,” says Csehak.

Choose Your Own Music could inspire countless listens the way numerous plot possibilities inspired multiple reads for children like me. However, these amazing outlets all seem like appetizer fare compared to the most promising—and underused— Choose Your Own Adventure medium: the silver screen. That, soon, might change, according to a recent Hollywood Reporter piece, Choose Your Own Adventure is poised to fill my boyhood expectations of the books full of ninja stars after inking a film deal with Fox.

Both The Hollywood Reporter and Gilligan seem mum about specifics, though in a statement recently where she mixes medium and media not to mention metaphors (perhaps apt for the head of the Choose empire), Gilligan said: “Choose Your Own Adventure works very well in book form, but ultimately it’s a method of storytelling that goes back to the oral tradition [really?], where a live narrative is open to interruption. Porting this experience to other medium [she means “media”] requires a lot of care [and Fox money]. What we bring to the table when considering Choose Your Own Adventure in a new media [medium] is a love of the brand we’ve cultivated over 30 years. It’s become a bit like identifying fresh fruit at the market: when it smells right, we know it.”

While she is smelling fruit and confusing the singular and plural forms of medium, my mind boggles when considering a catalog that includes Prisoner of the Ant People or You Are a Shark paired up with the 21st Century movie-making technology.

While all this fascinating Choose-inspired creativity is a nostalgic mind-knocker, the real thrill is in the future. Just as Csehak and Burk and myself were inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you wonder how all the current Choose mash-ups will be manipulated by today’s seven year-olds. The possibilities begin to branch off into enough alternative endings for a book all its own.

Choose Your Own Adventure style of storytelling, a style that makes the user feel like the center of that particular universe, seems to be the future. And it is a future to which a retied ninja like myself is looking forward. But still, if you wanted to turn to Page 20 and go back in time, I would understand.

About Patrick Wensink

Patrick Wensink (@patrickwensink) is the author of the bestselling novel Broken Piano for President and the essay collection Everything Was Great Until it Sucked. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon and many less-reputable sources. He lives in Louisville, KY.
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