If you were a kid in a Western country in the 1980s who was at all interested in reading, chances are your parents and teachers tried to encourage you with Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks. Atlas Obscura has a great article by Sarah Laskow, with example maps from the publisher, illustrating the choices that create Choose Your Own Adventure stories.


from Ian Kershaw on Flickr

In part due to dyslexia I wasn’t a reader as a kid, pages of text were daunting and fear inducing. The main place I encountered reading was school, in heavy tomes dense with blandly presented facts and rote memorization. It’s no surprise to me that I’d be put off by books. Despite that, thanks to comics and extra help at school, I did start overcoming my reading anxiety. Along the way someone handed me a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The idea of an uncertain universe flipped me, books were supposed to be locked safes where A led to Z along a concrete and consistent path. Here though was an indefinite world, where as much as the stories made sense, they were still malleable, shifting based on my decisions. Looking back I feel certain that they made an impact on my creative process, sparking the idea of breaking rules to see how the results changed.

that's a lot of story

Choose Your Own Adventure 3:
“Space and Beyond”
from Atlas Obscura

Another less studied but very important part of the CYOA formula, is that the stories had to have some bad endings. Without the chance of death–or worse–there’s no compelling reason to make choices for your in-story avatar. Mainstream children’s literature (the stuff assigned in English classes) very seldom exposed the reader to irrevocable danger; some bland adventure, but mostly lots of moralizing and life lessons that were supposed to teach you about being a good adult. COYA though would leave you in despair: Sentenced to play Monopoly for eternity, murdered by a ventriloquist, driven insane by aliens, left a hopeless environmentalist, or much much worse. The endings could be as dour as Twilight Zone episodes, told with deadpan noir delivery that’d leave me listless and demoralized for days sometimes.


from You Chose Wrong on Tumblr

Those harsh endings made an impact, and everyone who read the books remembers the worst fate they suffered. CYOA led me into computer text adventure games, Dungeons & Dragons, as well as exciting me to tell stories and make art of my own. I still gift the books to kids. They’re a useful tool in teaching too, the inspiration for a very popular interactive storytelling engine called Twine. I’m happy to know there’s still a publisher reprinting the great original novels, as well as commissioning new stories. The time is always right to Choose Your Own Adventure.