45 Years Ago, One Kids Book Series Taught A Generation How To Make Bad Decisions
Imagine if you could tell Bilbo Baggins to leave the ring behind for Gollum, have Leslie not swing on the rope to Terabithia on that rainy day, or remind Jonas to pack warmer clothes at the end of The Giver. Most fiction is concrete, with the authors dictating what happens next. But that changed when two writers figured out a way for the reader to control a character because the reader was that character. We’re talking about Choose Your Own Adventure, of course. The first published installment arrived in 1979, with The Cave of Time — though as we’ll see that wasn’t really the first book. For decades, Choose Your Own Adventure, was an atypical experiment in literary determinism that resulted in one of the most-read book franchises ever created.
For a generation, these interactive novels transported readers through space and time to form their own stories, putting them in the cockpit of planes, the gi of a judo master, or even the fins of a shark. By the end of the 90s, CYOA closed the chapter on its story, but nearly twenty-five years later, the company is back in action. Here’s how it all began, ended, and began again.
Interactive books weren’t a completely new idea before Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA), but its predecessors weren’t mainstream popular. There was a romance novel from the 1930s, where the reader decides which suitor the protagonist marries with dozens of possible endings. Several high-concept stories arrived by the 50s and 60s, like Raymond Queneau’s surreal Story As You Like It or Robert Coover’s explicit and unsettling The Babysitter. Celebrated for their uniqueness, none of these caught on beyond their novelty, and were purely adult fare. It wasn’t until a lawyer teamed up with a young writer to find a way to bring this idea to bookshelves across the country.
Edward Packard came from a family deep in the legal business, but practicing law was never something he truly cared about. While his passion was writing, Ed’s children’s books were never picked up by publishers. His fate changed one evening in 1969 while making up a bedtime story for his two daughters about a character named Pete. Struck by writer’s block, Packard couldn’t figure out how to progress the tale and asked his kids what should happen next. When both girls answered differently, he realized Pete was never the protagonist – it was his kids living those adventures firsthand in their imaginations. Immediately, Packard knew he was onto something.
Ray Montgomery had just started Vermont Crossroads Press in 1970, after cutting his teeth writing roleplaying scenarios for Clark Abt, a pioneer in educational games. The Yale and NYU grad had aspirations larger than his employer and ventured out to make a name for himself in publishing. When Packard walked into his office with a draft of Sugarcane Island in 1976, Montgomery saw great potential that perfectly aligned with his interests. “I Xeroxed 50 copies of Ed’s manuscript and took it to a reading teacher in Stowe,” Montgomery said in an interview from 1981. “His kids — third grade through junior high — couldn’t get enough of it.”
Sugarcane Island became the best-selling book of the upstart publisher, but they were still an unknown entity in a crowded landscape. It needed to find growth elsewhere, and this expansion led to a fracture between the pair of writers that remained for decades.
Choosing Their Own Adventures
Both authors hit the road with The Story of You (the original name of CYOA), attempting to sell the concept to larger publishers, but this wasn’t a unified pitch. Independent of the other, each founder aimed to seal a deal with a larger company. They received separate offers, but Montgomery’s pitch to Bantam was the more lucrative, with the caveat being this publisher wanted Packard as well. The pair accepted the terms, and split the deal, and workload.
Similar to the origin story of Sugarcane Island, Packard turned to his kids for ideas. His daughter, Andrea, told him about her summer escapades spelunking, and her desire to wander solo to explore more. She imagined a tunnel that could transport her to another time or place, and her dad loved it! Andrea scribbled more notes, and ultimately ideated the first published CYOA book, “The Cave of Time.”
While hiking through Snake Canyon, you come upon a cave you’ve never noticed before. You step inside and can potentially travel to medieval times, a prehistoric era, the Ming Dynasty, and other periods. Along the way, you can find your fortune through a foolish king, dine with cavemen, battle the Loch Ness Monster, try to escape the sinking Titanic, or any number of unpredictable possibilities. Some endings are bittersweet, others hopeful, and some are just plain grim.
A fortuitous mistake resulted in Bantam overprinting this inaugural entry, and the publisher remedied its overstock by donating 100,000 books to schools and libraries throughout America. This charitable act guaranteed their target audience would have no problem discovering the book, transforming CYOA into a household name practically overnight.
50 books later, readers returned to the cave for another adventure, making it one of the few retro CYOA titles to have a sequel. For her efforts, Andrea received a credit in the book and a percentage of royalties that still come to her mailbox decades later.
The opening page of every CYOA book warns readers they are responsible for their own fate. There’s no backtracking allowed (in theory), creating a flexible narrative where the outcome changes each time a page is turned. More often than not, the wrong turn leads to fatal consequences. But, really, who hasn’t flipped backward to reconsider a choice?
Few books offer the chance to be the master of a protagonist’s destiny, have wild adventures in a pocket-sized format, and combine those parts with the element of risk and uncertainty from a single decision. Some books have as many as 40 endings, and that finality could happen as early as the first ten pages. While most readers sought the happily ever after conclusion, others found pleasure in seeing how many ways they could fail in the grizzliest way possible.
“My philosophy was that it should be like life,” Packard once said, with the intent of including moral realism in the reader’s experience. Smart choices were typically better than impulsive haphazard decisions, but morally virtuous ones weren’t guaranteed to be the wisest, and you often paid for heroics with self-sacrifice. Cheating was discouraged, but technically if you didn’t take your finger off the page, it wasn’t a final decision.
There was one time when being mischievous paid off, and that famous case was the twelfth book, Inside UFO 54-40. This is the only book in the series that explicitly rewards cheating. In order to find the secret alien planet, the reader must forego the typical CYOA patterns and stop playing along. Only by reading the book straight through would they stumble on a page unmarked by any choices to discover this paradise. “You did not make a choice, or follow any directions, but now, somehow, you are descending from space—approaching a great, glistening sphere.” The lesson was ambiguous, but a valuable one – sometimes, disobeying the rules is its own reward.
The End? Return to Page One
CYOA books dominated stores around the world during the 80s and 90s, with hundreds of millions of books sold in 38 languages. But as the new millennium approached, Montgomery and Packard found themselves at a crossroads with no page to turn.
Video games were taking over, as screen time replaced reading. Sales dwindled until the company flew the white flag in 1998, ending with book #184, Mayday, which Packard co-wrote with the person responsible for the very first title in the franchise, his daughter Andrea.
In 2003, Montgomery and his wife Shannon Gilligan (who met while working on an Atari game based on the CYOA books) bought the rights to the franchise and revived it through ChooseCo. Montgomery passed away in 2014 writing Gus VS The Robot King, but Gilligan has kept the brand thriving as CEO while bringing it to new places.
Today, CYOA sells an average of a million books annually, evolving to reach a more inclusive readership and touching on issues that affect modern society. Their bestseller remains a four-pack filled with classics, but ChooseCo transitioned into graphic novels like Eighth Grade Witch, and offers longer CYOA books with titles like Time Travel Inn and Murder at the Old Willow Boarding School, which introduced their first nonbinary character. Readers ages six to eight can dip their toes into the Dragonlark series, and even younger ones can start their adventure with the adorable board book The Abominable Snowman, with lethal endings absent from these kid-friendly editions. There are also board games, an upcoming Tarot card set, and a proposed book series for nostalgic adults with more mature themes- but nothing too explicit.
Montgomery always hoped the CYOA series would be a stealth reading program to excite kids into becoming voracious bookworms. Years later, his dream continues to be a reality, and may soon rekindle that same love within adults who grew up on these books.
There are surprising plans beyond the traditional format that Gilligan couldn’t divulge in 2023, but even as technology evolves nothing beats the experience of reading a physical book and not knowing what awaits the reader when they turn it over.
At Toy Fair 2023, Shannon Gilligan said: “Touching a page and moving it makes the brain think you’ve been somewhere on some super subtle level.” And even though she said Choose Your Own Adventure is at the “dawn of a relaunch,” the truth is, we’ve all been on this adventure for years.