A Brief History of "Choose Your Own Adventure"

KALI CIESEMIER
KALI CIESEMIER

As an unproven assistant editor in her early twenties, Joëlle Delbourgo got an unwelcome message: Her boss at Bantam wanted to see her. Immediately.

It was 1978, and Delbourgo was championing a new children’s title called The Cave of Time. The book was something of an anomaly: It didn’t have a plot or a main character or even a proper ending. Instead, the reader was asked to assume the role of the hero. Every few pages, he or she had to make a critical decision on how to proceed. There were about 40 possible endings, with some paths leading to glory and others ending in alien invasion, tyrannosaurus attack, and other forms of ruin. Delbourgo hoped to make it her first major acquisition.

In fact, she hoped to pursue it as a series. But as a junior voice in the company, she had no idea how her higher-ups would respond to such an experimental project. As she stepped into the cavernous office of Oscar Dystel, Bantam’s president, anxiety struck.

“I understand you’re trying to change the way kids read,” he barked. She was. And she wasn’t alone.

AN ADVENTUROUS IDEA

A decade prior, a lawyer named Edward Packard had hit upon an idea. He often told his kids bedtime stories, and whenever he couldn’t figure out how to resolve a story, he asked them to weigh in with options. He soon realized that they enjoyed the stories more when they helped choose the endings.

This interactivity was a valuable storytelling device—it both harnessed the kids’ attention and took advantage of their innate creativity—and Packard wondered whether there was a clever way to package it in book form. During his commute, he began writing a shipwreck adventure called Sugarcane Island, with multiple storylines that required reader participation.

When, in 1969, he passed his finished copy along to a friend of a friend who worked as a William Morris literary agent, the feedback was glowing. “The agent said he would be surprised if there were no takers,” Packard recalls. “Then he proceeded to be surprised.”

Island collected dust until 1975, when Vermont Crossroads Press, a publisher looking for innovative children’s books, picked it up. The press was headed by R.A. Montgomery, a former high school teacher who saw the educational value in game structure. “Experiential learning is the most powerful way for kids, or for anyone, to learn something,” Montgomery says.

Montgomery published Sugarcane Island to a nice, albeit quiet, response, and he and Packard began to write more stories. But Vermont Crossroads didn’t have great distribution. “He was not equipped to saturate the market,” Packard says. Montgomery agreed. He passed the title to a young literary agent named Amy Berkower, who tried to pitch the books to numerous houses. “The only person responsive was Joëlle,” Berkower remembers.

“I got really excited,” says Delbourgo, who also worked in Bantam’s educational division. “I said, ‘Amy, this is revolutionary.’ This is precomputer, remember. The idea of interactive fiction, choosing an ending, was fresh and novel. It tapped into something very fundamental.”

But before Delbourgo could publish the book, she had to persuade her boss at Bantam to take a risk. Dystel was skeptical at first, but Delbourgo’s presentation was convincing. She believed in the product. “He wound up becoming my biggest supporter,” she says. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series officially launched in 1979.

Montgomery and Packard were each contracted to write six books. The first title to be picked up by Bantam was Montgomery's Journey Under the Sea, about an expedition to Atlantis. Readers were confronted with seismic choices: “If you put up the energy repulsion shields to try and escape the black hole, turn to page 22!” To stoke attention, Bantam gave away thousands of copies, flooded book fairs, and created teaching guides for classrooms. The strategy worked. By 1981, Bantam had four million copies in print.

That same year, the young daughter of New York Times culture columnist Aljean Harmetz picked up a “Choose” book and couldn’t put it down. Intrigued, Harmetz wrote a piece that described the series as being “as contagious as chicken pox.” That’s when it exploded.

HITTING THE MAINSTREAM

To capitalize on the momentum, Bantam decided to roll out one title a month. In turning up the frequency to serial levels, the publisher hit upon another novelty that would prove irresistible. Because the books were numbered sequentially, kids started collecting them like trading cards. Years later, this savvy marketing technique would be applied to other series, including “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Sweet Valley High.”

To keep pace with this grueling publication schedule, Packard and Montgomery—who worked separately—started subcontracting installments to other writers. (In years to come, bestselling authors like James Patterson and Tom Clancy would use this same formula, known as “packaging,” to keep up their production.) In 1981, Packard quit his law practice to write full time.

While the main “Choose” line featured a variety of adventures—Mayan exploration, deep-sea intrigue, run-ins with the abominable snowman—greater demand called for more and more spin-offs. Some, like the Star Wars and Disney tie-ins, were licensed merchandise. Others didn’t fare so well. “I tried some sports titles like 'Soccer Star' and 'Skateboard Master,' but they didn’t sell,” Packard says. Instead, he and his writers gravitated toward subjects that interested them: science, shipwrecks, African mountain gorillas.

As with most children’s trends, there was some hand-wringing over several of the more gruesome fates: Child psychologists questioned whether scary stories—say, getting sacrificed in a pagan ritual—made for reassuring bedtime reading. Packard laughed off the criticisms. “I remember getting ‘shot’ as a kid,” he says of playing cowboy. “Kids got it very quickly. You die, yes, but you take another choice and go on.”

CHOOSING TO RETIRE

By the late 1980s, the series was showing signs of exhaustion. Lackluster concepts like You Are a Shark were pushed through in the rush to keep the installments coming, and the number of possible endings in many titles dwindled. Early “Choose” books had dozens of endings; later entries saw as few as eight. Then, with the rise of video and computer games, which provided that same interactivity in an even more addictive format, “Choose”’s foothold in the market slipped. In 1999, after selling 250 million copies worldwide, the publisher retired the brand and let the trademark lapse.

And yet, nearly 35 years after its debut, “Choose Your Own Adventure” remains a publishing landmark. It preceded many of the long-running children’s series, like “Goosebumps,” and proved to skeptical parents that kids were still willing to crack open books. “The reading happened because kids were put in the driver’s seat. They were the mountain climber, they were the doctor, they were the deep-sea explorer,” says Montgomery. “They made choices, and so they read.”

By combining savvy marketing with an innate sense for the psychology of storytelling, Delbourgo had stumbled upon the formula for an enduring classic. At the time, the series’ success netted her a $2000 raise. (Eventually, she settled in as a literary agent.) But having a hand in birthing “Choose Your Own Adventure” held far greater rewards than Delbourgo could have anticipated. “I remember how I felt when I read the books and how excited I got, the clarity I had about them,” she says. “I couldn’t have imagined the incredible impact it had or how prescient it was.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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14 Black Authors You Should Read Right Now

Pexabay, Pexels // CC0
Pexabay, Pexels // CC0

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, works on anti-racism have been flying off the shelves of Black-owned bookstores. But anti-racism doesn’t start and end with philosophical theories—it’s also a matter of shifting your current reading patterns. If you’ve found yourself purchasing Stamped but not The Hate U Give or With the Fire on High, then you’re doing yourself a major disservice. To help you get started, here are some groundbreaking Black authors you should read—and a few suggested books for you to check out.

1. Jason Reynolds

Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Amazon

Jason Reynolds has a true gift when it comes to describing the Black male experience. He began writing poetry at age 9 and published his first novel in 2014. With his books—more than 10 so far—he’s created a space for Black boys to see themselves on the covers of fiction as much more than victims. On his website, Reynolds acknowledges that “I know there are a lot—A LOT—of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don't actually hate books, they hate boredom… even though I'm a writer, I hate reading boring books too.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: The Boy in the Black Suit, Ghost

2. Nic Stone

Nic Stone has been kicking down the door on issues that have been overlooked for decades. Through her books, she brings attention and nuance to subjects like grief, discrimination, and questioning one’s sexuality in a way that has rarely been seen before in Young Adult and Middlegrade fiction. Up until 2013, The New York Times bestselling author didn’t think she could write fiction. “Part of the reason I didn't think I could do it is because I didn't see anyone who looked like me writing the type of stuff I wanted to write (super popular YA fiction),” Stone writes in an FAQ on her website. “But I decided to give it a shot anyway. (Life lesson: If you don't see you, go BE you.)”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Dear Martin, Odd One Out

3. Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas made waves after the release of The Hate U Give, a New York Times Bestseller that was made into a critically acclaimed film. Thomas’s second novel, On the Come Up, takes place in Garden Heights about a year after the events of The Hate U Give. It follows a 16-year-old up-and-coming rapper who goes by the nickname Bri. As a former teen rapper herself, Thomas knows the topic well. Just don’t ask her to participate in a rap battle. “I hoped that with writing these scenes and with showing people the ins and outs of it and the internal part of it, of coming up with freestyles on the spot, that maybe—just maybe more people would respect it as an art form,” Thomas told NPR. “But I can't do it.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: The Hate U Give, On the Come Up

4. Brittney Morris

Simon Pulse/Amazon

In her debut novel, Slay, author Brittney Morris shows the ways that Black people are discriminated against in the gaming industry. In its review, Publisher's Weekly wrote, “This tightly written novel will offer an eye-opening take for many readers and speak to teens of color who are familiar with the exhaustion of struggling to feel at home in a largely white society.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Slay

5. Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Nigerian-American author who intertwines African mysticism and science fiction in her writing, masterfully addressing societal issues while showing us how the world can become a better place. Okorafor never envisioned a career as a writer; she planned to be an entomologist until, as a college student, she was paralyzed from the waist down after back surgery. She began writing to distract herself while she recovered, and never looked back. “Nigeria is my muse,” Okorafor told The New York Times. “The idea of the world being a magical place, a mystical place, is normal there.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Binti, Akata Witch

6. Tiffany D. Jackson

If you love psychological thrillers and haven’t read Tiffany D. Jackson’s first two novels, you’re missing out: Jackson has an ability to twist elements of her story to include new perspectives while keeping readers second-guessing their own theories. Her writing was influenced by many of the authors she discovered in her teen years. “I was, and still am, a HUGE R.L Stein fan, so his Fear Street series took me into my teen years," she writes on her website. "But then I was introduced to Mary Higgins Clark, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Jodi Picoult, to name a few.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Allegedly, Monday’s Not Coming

7. Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Nafissa Thompson-Spires catalogues the plights of the Black community with stories that are so intricate, they could be true. One story follows a Black cosplayer shot by police; another addresses post-partum depression. She also showcases the joy that surfaces throughout our lives, despite the hardships. Thompson-Spires’s writing has earned her comparisons to the likes of Paul Beatty, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Munro. “I think the goal of a writer should be to tell the truth in some way, even if it’s to tell it slant—or to imagine a better version of the truth," she told The Guardian. "We have to find ways to confront difficult subjects.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Heads of Colored People

8. Justin A. Reynolds

Katherine Tegen Books/Amazon

No, Justin A. Reynolds isn’t related to Jason Reynolds, but he’s just as talented. In his debut novel, Opposite of Always, Reynolds uses common YA tropes in an innovative way; a star-crossed lovers plot with the added effect of time travel truly sets this story apart.

Add to Your TBR Pile: Opposite of Always, Early Departures

9. Tony Medina

Tony Medina, the first Creative Writing professor at Howard University, has published 17 books, and his fight for social justice is evident in his writing. In his graphic novel, I Am Alfonso Jones, Medina uses Hamlet as inspiration for explaining issues of police brutality and social justice to Young Adult readers.

Add to Your TBR Pile: I Am Alfonso Jones

10. Elizabeth Acevedo

Quill Tree Books/Amazon

The Black experience is not a singular one, and Elizabeth Acevedo—whose debut novel, The Poet X, was a New York Times bestseller and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018—expands the canon with beautifully detailed Afro-Latinx narratives. “I feel like it’s hard to dream a thing you can’t see," Acevedo said in an interview with Black Nerd Problems. "And I think growing up like I knew I loved music and I loved poetry and I loved the feeling of being with other poets and listening to other stories and thinking, like, I think I can do that just as good.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: The Poet X, With the Fire on High

11. N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is a voice for the marginalized in science fiction. She has won a number of awards for her work, including a Nebula Award and two Locust Awards, and she was the first person to win three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in a row, for her Broken Earth trilogy. "I’ll use whatever techniques are necessary to get the story across and I read pretty widely," Jemisin told The Paris Review. "So when people kept saying second person is just not done in science fiction, I was like, well, they said first person wasn’t done in fantasy and I did that with my first novel. I don’t understand the weird marriage to particular techniques and the weird insistence that only certain things can be done in science fiction."

Add to Your TBR Pile: The City We Became, The Fifth Season

12. Renée Watson

Renée Watson uses her novels to address gentrification, discrimination, and what it’s like to grow up as a Black girl. “My motivation to write young adult novels comes from a desire to get teenagers talking," she said in an interview with BookPage. "I hope my books are a catalyst for youth and adults to have conversations with one another, for teachers to have a starting point to discuss difficult topics with students.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: This Side of Home, Piecing Me Together

13. Maika and Maritza Moulite

Inkyard Press/Amazon

In their book Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, Haitian-American sister-author duo Maika and Maritza Moulite have created an exciting and riveting story of self-exploration and the meaning of family. These two have already secured a publishing deal for their next novel, One of the Good Ones.

Add to Your TBR Pile: Dear Haiti, Love Alaine

14. Talia Hibbert

Although you may have heard her name more recently due to her USA Today bestselling novel Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert isn’t a newcomer to the world of adult and paranormal romance: In books, she writes narratives that often follow characters who are diverse in race, body types, and sexuality—because, as her website bio states, “she believes that people of marginalised identities need honest and positive representation.”

Add to Your TBR Pile: Get a Life, Chloe Brown, A Girl Like Her

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