The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books

From The New Yorker:

You were a girl who wanted to choose your own adventures. Which is to say, you were a girl who never had adventures. You always followed the rules. But, when you ate an entire sleeve of graham crackers and sank into the couch with a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you got to imagine that you were getting into trouble in outer space, or in the future, or under the sea. You got to make choices every few pages: Do you ask the ghost about her intentions, or run away? Do you rebel against the alien overlords, or blindly obey them?

This was the late eighties in Los Angeles. You binged on these books, pulling tattered sun-bleached copies from your bookshelf: four, five, six in the course of a single afternoon. All over the country, all over the world, other kids were pulling these books from their bookshelves, too. The series has sold more than two hundred and seventy million copies since its launch, in 1979. It’s the fourth-best-selling children’s-book series of all time. Its popularity peaked in the eighties, but the franchise still sells about a million books a year.

In “The Cave of Time,” the first book in the series, you discover a time-travelling cave whose tunnels carry you to Colonial Massachusetts, where you become a soap-maker’s apprentice; or to the Titanic, where your attempts to warn the captain are futile; or even to a version of the year 2022 that does not look much like our version of 2022 (more bike trails). The stated desire of your character (to return to your own time) is at odds with the actual desire of a reader (to have as many adventures as possible). You want to die in the jaws of a T. rex, or change the course of history by eating a sandwich. The warning at the beginning of the book tells you, “Remember—you cannot go back!” But of course you can go back, and you will. After the first few books, the warnings stop saying “You cannot go back!” They understand that going back is the point—not the making but the re-making of choices, the revocability of it all. In childhood, you get to take things back. It’s a small compensation for having very little power in the first place.

Choose books invited kids to exercise some agency, as they rattled around in these cages of limited possibility: millions of seven-year-olds who would someday become thirty-five-year-olds remembering with an aching nostalgia this early sense of freedom; this faith that, after every death, there would always be a do-over.

TWO DADS

The story of Choose Your Own Adventure is largely the tale of two men: Edward Packard, a lawyer who came up with the concept while telling bedtime stories to his two daughters (who sometimes wanted the protagonist to do different things), and R. A. (Ray) Montgomery, an independent publisher who put out Packard’s first book, in 1976, after all the big houses had rejected it. Each of them eventually went on to write nearly sixty titles in the series. During the next three decades, Packard and Montgomery (who died in 2014) weathered an evolving, sometimes fractious relationship. Each, at various points, pursued publishing ventures without the other. But together they were responsible for many of the most beloved titles in the series: Packard’s “The Cave of Time,” “Your Code Name Is Jonah,” “Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?,” and “The Mystery of Chimney Rock”; Montgomery’s “Journey Under the Sea,” “The Lost Jewels of Nabooti,” “Mystery of the Maya,” and “Prisoner of the Ant People.”

Both men went through divorces shortly before the series started gaining momentum, and ended up writing many of their books as single fathers. Their children remember helping their fathers invent and flesh out new scenarios: Packard’s daughter Andrea suggested the idea of a time-travelling cave; Montgomery’s sons, Anson and Ramsey, suggested cars (the Saab 900 Turbo, the Lancia Stratos) for “The Race Forever.” Packard paid his children thirty-five cents an hour to read his manuscripts and offer feedback: Which parts were boring? Which choices would kids enjoy? (Andrea, Anson, and Ramsey ended up writing for the franchise, publishing their first Choose books during college.)

Andrea recalls that time with her father felt even more precious after her parents divorced. (They split up when she was seven.) He would take her on weekend outings that emphasized experiment and tactile experience—encountering the world in concrete, physical ways—and Andrea sees the Choose books as another manifestation of this ethos: a way of encouraging kids to experience the world through exploration and curiosity. Andrea can still remember looking at her father’s diagrams for the books: the forking branches spidering across taped-together paper charts. To her, “those charts felt like houses of possibility.”

. . . .

THE STORYTELLER

When his daughters were young, Packard told them bedtime stories about a boy named Pete, a literary alter ego of Andrea’s. (Pete was also the name of a friend she had a crush on, but she thinks the character’s creation had more to do with her suspicion that boys had more freedom in the world.) At key junctures in the story, Packard would ask his daughters what they thought Pete should do next, and when they gave different answers he’d play out both possibilities. Packard remembers this innovation as a function of necessity—“If I’d been a better storyteller, we never would have gotten the form. . . . I’d get stumped, and ask the girls what should happen next”—but Andrea recalls it as an instance of his generosity. He wanted to give each girl her own ending, just as he was always meticulously fair in his distribution of snacks, compliments, and attention.

Andrea remembers bedtime stories with her dad as sacred—this was the time the kids got to be with him, after his long days working at a law firm in Manhattan and his lengthy train commutes back to their home, in suburban Connecticut. Eventually, Packard began using these commutes to turn his bedtime stories into his first book, “Sugarcane Island,” a story full of branching paths recounting Pete’s adventures on a remote island. Working on the manuscript offered Packard an escape from a law career he found largely unsatisfying. In 1969, Packard signed a contract with an agent, who submitted “Sugarcane Island” to various New York publishers and accumulated a stack of rejections. One editor thought it was more of a game than a book. Another said, “It’s hard enough to get children to read, and you’re just making it harder, with all these choices.”

THE SCENARIO BUILDER

On a Vermont ski vacation in 1975, years after getting rejected by every editor who read “Sugarcane Island,” Packard stumbled across a magazine article about a small publisher called Vermont Crossroads, run by a husband-and-wife team: Ray Montgomery and Constance Cappel. They were looking for inventive children’s literature. When he sent them “Sugarcane Island,” they were immediately excited by the concept. One of Montgomery’s jobs had been consulting as a scenario builder for the Peace Corps and for Con Edison, writing elaborate second-person roles for participants: “You are a construction worker in your mid-thirties. . . . Oil shortages worry you, but you believe a lot of it is bluff.” Packard’s book reminded him of those scenarios: their immersive perspectives, decision junctures, and forking paths.

Despite the couple’s enthusiasm, Vermont Crossroads didn’t have many resources to devote to promotion. Packard had to pitch in to help with the publishing costs. Montgomery Xeroxed sixty copies and gave them to a local teacher to pass out to her students as a kind of juvenile focus group. Asked if they found the book interesting, fifty-nine said yes—and the one who called it “boring” reported having read it nine times. When asked if they would give the book as a gift, only four students said no (one of whom explained, “I’d keep it”). Another student said, “In other books if you’re in a jungle and a snake was next to you, you would have to go away or stay still but in this book you can do both.”

“Sugarcane Island” went on to become one of Vermont Crossroads’s most successful books, selling more than five thousand copies, but both Packard and Montgomery believed that the idea had the potential to break out on a much larger scale. That’s when things got a bit messy, both personally and professionally. Montgomery and his wife separated (as Packard tells it, “she got the house, he got ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ ”); and both men tried (separately) to take the Choose Your Own Adventure concept to larger publishers. First, Packard signed a deal with J. B. Lippincott & Co., an imprint of Harper, and published two Choose books. His pitch for a third was rejected. Packard says that Montgomery, “miffed” that Packard had left Vermont Crossroads, approached Bantam, then part of Bertelsmann, with the concept on his own. Montgomery got a contract for six books. As Packard tells it, Bantam “wouldn’t sign the deal” without Packard’s involvement; as Montgomery’s widow, Shannon Gilligan, tells it, Montgomery’s sense of fairness, as well as a feeling that six books in a year was too much for one writer, inspired him to get Packard involved. However it happened, they eventually split the deal.

Andrea helped her father come up with the idea for “The Cave of Time” during a road trip. They were in his orange Volkswagen Squareback—with a stick holding up one window, and no seat belts in the back—going to see his mother on the North Fork of Long Island. Packard told his daughters and their younger brother that he had a contract with Bantam and he needed ideas. Andrea had recently gone spelunking at summer camp, crawling into a small cave beneath the main cave, farther than anyone else, and felt torn between exploring more—had anyone ever seen these tunnels?—and returning to safety. When she suggested the idea to her father—a cave whose deepest tunnels transported you through time—he said, “Great idea! Get started!,” and handed her a yellow composition pad. “The Cave of Time” credits Andrea with “concept, title, and editorial assistance,” and she has always received a percentage of the royalties.

At Bantam, Choose Your Own Adventure finally found the huge readership its creators always believed it could entice. A 1981 feature in the Times described a fourth-grade classroom with seven students all making different choices in “The Cave of Time.” Soon afterward, Packard was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel on the “Today” show. (He’d been hoping for Jane Pauley, whom he had a crush on.) At some point in the early eighties, Bantam decided that it wanted twelve books a year, so it got six from Packard and six from Montgomery.

The Choose franchise hit a generational sweet spot, alongside the rise of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. Back then, it was these text-based experiences which could most powerfully deliver the possibilities of interactive narrative.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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