Why Those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Books Defined My Childhood

You're a nameless kid, on your way to visit your uncle or something (why does it seem like the Choose Your Own Adventure kids were always visiting their uncles?). But as you're walking along a familiar mountain path, you come across something you've never seen before. Is it the vine-covered entrance to a time-traveling cave? The hulking shape of the Abominable Snowman? Something with aliens? (Spoiler: It's almost always something with aliens.) You're scared but intrigued, and so you step closer to this strange new object, your heart racing, palms sweaty, getting closer and closer until... a mountain lion jumps out and eats you. Or you get split in half by a trans-dimensional portal. Or you turn into a pig and realize that you are doomed to one day be slaughtered for someone's BLT (yes, that is a real ending from one of the books).

If that all sounds familiar, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

If not, read on for a brief introduction to the world of Choose Your Own Adventure.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books always began with a similar warning. Maybe it was the four exclamation points, or the possibility of gruesome death, but kids went nuts for these interactive adventures.:

The whole idea began with Edward Packard, a lawyer who noticed that his daughters enjoyed bedtime stories more if they got to help choose the endings (they also liked to help him out when he got stuck with a plot). So he decided to write a children's book that would put the reader in control, and soon it spiraled into a hugely successful series. Before Goosebumps or The Baby-Sitter's Club, there was Choose Your Own Adventure: the books were written in the second person, with you as the hero, and every page or two you were offered a choice, such as "if you decide that the chimps are friendly, turn to page 9," or "If you return to the surface of the planet despite your captain's warning, turn to page 87."

Sometimes you would wind up the emperor of some alien planet, or (very rarely) make it home to your aunt and uncle in one piece. More often, you would meet a truly horrifying death.

I was a little behind the times with the whole Choose Your Own Adventure fad. It seems like its heyday was the '80s and early '90s, and by the time I was reading the books, you could only really find them secondhand. A lot of people had probably given up interactive books in favor of video games, but I was always at least two technologies behind as a kid (I was that 9th grader who still listened to cassette tapes before it became retro to listen to cassette tapes). So I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. They scared me so badly that I had to read with my thumb firmly lodged in the previous page, just in case I'd chosen my own doom. I always cheated, and backtracked every time I died. But even with all my precautions, I still had nightmares about being devoured by furry green aliens, or asphyxiating on a damaged space station, or riding a train off a cliff in the Vampire Express.

Still, no matter how many times a crab-person sucked out my brain through a straw, I kept coming back to those books. I read them out loud to my friends on the school bus, took them on long car rides, reread them to see if I could reach an ending I'd never reached before (or at least, an ending where I still had all my limbs). I liked the absurdist quality of the books, untroubled by logic. I liked that the books didn't talk down to you; the authors never seemed concerned that an 8-year-old might be disturbed by being fictionally dismembered.

And above all, I loved the originality of the structure. In the truly creepy Inside UFO 54-40, you spend the whole book searching for the paradise planet of Ultima. And there is an ending where you reach the utopian Ultima — but no matter what choice you make, you'll never get there. You have to just cheat and flip through the book at random to find the one happy ending. I mean... how cool is that? You have to break the rules of the book in order to "win" the book? When you're 8, that's a mind-blowing level of meta-fiction.

So, the Choose Your Own Adventure Books were fun and innovative and upsetting to small children, but did they change the way that kids read? Well... I would argue yes. I know that they're not high literature — they're not Harry Potter or The Phantom Tollbooth or any other kids' book that teaches you the importance of love and math. They don't teach you much besides "don't get killed by aliens," "don't visit your uncle," and "the universe is a cruel and unpredictable mistress." But in their own small way, they revolutionized kids' reading.

If you were a young writer, especially, those books were magical: they let you in on the writing process! You got to see a narrative structure from the inside out, and you got to kind of help with the writing. Before the interactive wonders of elaborately scripted video games and experimental new media, Choose Your Own Adventure Books were letting kids play around with the very idea of what a story could be.

Plus, YOU were the main character! Ok, so in reality, most of the illustrations portray "you" as a generic white boy...

...because apparently that was the only demographic anyone cared about in the '80s. But the text itself rarely described you in any detail. You were supposed to see yourself in the role of intrepid adventurer, whoever you were.

Because even if the illustrations were limiting, the books never underestimated the role of the reader. As a kid, it's rare to feel in control of anything. But in the Choose Your Own Adventure universe, you were in control of your own story (until you got eaten by space bees, at least). Edward Packard and his team understood that reading is every inch as creative a process as writing. Even when a book doesn't offer you any choices, you're creating the story in your head as you read it.

The Choose Your Own Adventure Books might have been cheesy at times, or grisly, or grim. They certainly didn't shy away from having "you" crash into the sun on occasion. But they opened my eyes to experimental narrative structures. And perhaps more importantly, they fed my lifelong love of writing, reading, and aliens. And isn't that what any good children's book is supposed to do?

Images: Kaeru/Flickr; Charlotte Ahlin for Bustle; Giphy (2)