Thursday, September 24, 2020

Endless Adventures Ahead!

One of the major reasons I wrote the Pulp Mindset is because nobody reads anymore. That is even the first sentence in the book description. The fact of the matter is that reading is a dying hobby, reserved for the small few fortunate enough to be introduced to it at the right age, and a certain type of elitist reading obscure second person present tense "fantasy" books about the dynamics of gender theory over Joss Whedon dialogue. In other words, few normal people read anymore. No one in OldPub even begins to understand the problem in order to fix it.

As we've covered a few times on this blog, things weren't that great in the book industry by the 1990s. By that time, horror was being phased out, fantasy tales were solely aping Tolkien and D&D campaigns, and space adventures were fading out of relevance by the time George Lucas announced special editions to his ancient movies. Before the explosion of Harry Potter to come in the early '00s, kids didn't have much reason to pick up a book, and schools gave them less reason to look them up as a hobby due to the dross they assigned.

However, there were exceptions. If you're reading this then you are certainly aware of what this refers to. Reading wasn't yet completely dead. Today, we are going to talk about one series--the one I believe has the most relevance to what most recent movements to get kids to read again are familiar with. This is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series. This was a mammoth of a franchise decades ago and still has nostalgic cache today. Every member of Gen Y and younger member of Gen X indulged in this series at one time or another.

For those unaware, Choose Your Own Adventure was a series of over 250 books (184 main series and many side-series and spin offs) all written in novella length. They were all pulp adventure stories in different settings from historical settings to space to mythological to spy to mystery and everything in between. The series ran from 1979 to 1998 (there's that year again) and were staples of every library and kid's reading collection at the time. As far as getting children to read there were few series more successful at it than CYOA was.

What made these books work were that these adventures were told in a way that made the reader have to take part in the action. It made them exercise their imagination and engage with the storytelling. Every story in the series contains narrative forks, and you are required to choose which you would take. Your choices directly effect what path you take and what ending you will get. What this means is that the book contains many different versions of the same story where anything can happen, and does. It's a way to make kids who might not find the prospect of reading too exciting more involved in the proceedings. It's no wonder these remained popular even after the rise of video games in the '80s and '90s. It showed you could still do a lot with prose fiction.

If you're thinking this series is similar to the concept of role-playing games, then you are very observant. That is where the series got it's start.

"CYOA has its roots in game theory and role-playing simulations. In 1976, R. A. Montgomery was running Vermont Crossroads Press, a small publisher known for its innovative children’s list, when he was approached by Ed Packard with a manuscript entitled Sugarcane Island. Montgomery, who had been involved in the design of interactive role-playing games in the early 1970’s for both government and industry, recognized an RPG in book form and quickly agreed to publish it. He christened the gamebook series “The Adventures of You." When Packard opted to publish his next book with Lippincott hoping for wider distribution, Montgomery wrote the second book in the series himself. Journey Under the Sea was published in 1977 under the pen name Robert Mountain. Publishers Weekly wrote at the time that the series was “an original idea, well carried out.”

"In 1978, Montgomery sold his interest in the press, but retained rights to The Adventures of You. He brought the gamebook series to Bantam Books, who was starting a new children’s book division. Montgomery signed a contract for six books in 1978, and invited Ed Packard and another former VCP writer, Doug Terman, to contribute books to the new venture. Bantam renamed the series Choose Your Own Adventure."

That's right, one of the most important ad popular children's book series has its foot in RPGs. That may seem a bit strange considering the current state of both subcultures. I would go so far to say that RPGs have otherwise harmed fantastical literature by making them focused on transposed game campaigns and little else. But CYOA didn't do that.

The series was written in second person (one of the few successful uses of it, I might add) but the narrative would unfold like any other book would, only diverting to allow the reader (the one who is "playing" the main character) to choose the action they would take at specific narrative forks. This manages to add flavor to the narrative without making it seem as if it is just a bunch of things happening randomly by dice roll. Book aren't games, and the writers of CYOA understood that. The game influence ends were the storytelling begins. This is why it remains the most popular series of this style of book even now.

Bantam was also clever with the way they advertised the series. First by flooding book fairs, handing free copies to everyone who looked their way, and even created teaching guides. They also numbered the books and gave them a trading card like design, because kids like to collect things. They would later do this to future middle grade books. Bantam went all out on this series in a way you won't see today. They did what publishers are supposed to do--advertise and promote. And not only did they do it: they succeeded.

But a gimmick is still just a gimmick, ultimately. The series wouldn't have taken off if it was merely a bunch of simple choices for he reader to make at narrative forks. A gimmick can only hold a person's attention for so long, but a series that lasted nearly 20 years with over 250 books must have had more than a trick to hold reader's attention for so long. After all, they were still successful in the age of the arcade, blockbuster movies, and Saturday morning cartoons. When people say no one reads anymore because of too much competition, well, that simple wasn't the case throughout the 1980s into the '90s when the greatest toys ever made were being produced on the regular. Yet this simple book series thrived in that time regardless. That alone is a major success.

So what made CYOA so popular? Beyond the gimmick, something had to keep bringing readers back for near 20 years and over 250 books. I suppose if you've read enough posts here then you can probably guess what that might be. 

Here's a hint:

Yes, this exists

It's a series of pulps for kids.

As stated above, there were no "genre" limitations on what could be put out in CYOA. Much like the successful Goosebumps which came years after its creation, the appeal comes from the wild concept that allows the story to go in any weird direction it wants. Kids want escapism as much as everyone else. It isn't like the dreary formulaic pap of modern young adult fiction or OldPub's rapidly closing chain bookstores are carrying anything that bring in new readers. But these books did, and they did it for a long time.

Essentially, Choose Your Own Adventure is the children's version of Weird Tales. When you open an issue of Weird Tales you never quite know what you're going to get out of it, and these books were much the same. It's no wonder they still have so much nostalgia attached to them.

But how are they like pulps otherwise? As an example, let me list out fifty random titles from the series. That is a good enough chunk to get the point across. Put it out of your mind that this is part of a line and just soak in what they are each called. This should help understand just what makes them so similar to a older tradition.

Remember, these all ran from 1979-1998: 

  • The Cave of Time
  • The Mystery of Chimney Rock
  • Your Code Name Is Jonah
  • Deadwood City
  • Inside UFO 54-40
  • The Forbidden Castle
  • House of Danger
  • Underground Kingdom
  • Hyperspace
  • Prisoner of the Ant People
  • The Phantom Submarine
  • The Horror of High Ridge
  • Mountain Survival
  • Trouble on Planet Earth
  • The Curse of Batterslea Hall
  • Vampire Express
  • Treasure Diver
  • The Dragons' Den
  • Secret of the Ninja
  • Rock and Roll Mystery
  • Invaders of the Planet Earth
  • Space Vampire
  • Knights of the Round Table
  • Exiled to Earth
  • You Are a Millionaire
  • Revenge of the Russian Ghost
  • The Worst Day of Your Life
  • The Cobra Connection
  • Treasure of the Onyx Dragon
  • Smoke Jumper
  • Skateboard Champion
  • Magic Master
  • Silver Wings
  • Superbike
  • Outlaw Gulch
  • War with the Mutant Spider Ants
  • Last Run
  • Cyberspace Warrior
  • Ninja Cyborg
  • You Are an Alien
  • Sky-Jam!
  • Tattoo of Death
  • Possessed!
  • Shadow of the Swastika
  • Master of Kendo
  • Killer Virus
  • River of No Return
  • Ninja Avenger
  • CyberHacker
  • Mayday!

As can be gleamed from the above, the CYOA series not only didn't have a strict genre rule, it also didn't strive to "teach" kids and instead let them live out adventures instead. Which is what they wanted. Of course some books would have messages or points to them, that was always the case, but what mattered to the audience was the adventure. This series lasted so long and was so popular because they could do pretty much whatever they wanted.

This is what fiction should be, and what it once was about.

From personal experience I can definitely say these books were everywhere in the 1990s. My fifth grade teacher would give students stars based on what we read, and the CYOA were worth half a star each (due to their length) but kids still read them anyway to accumulate points. Anywhere you went that had a pile of books sitting around, there would be one or two of these familiar slim paperbacks sticking out of it. Even more than Goosebumps, this series was something everyone read, even those who didn't like horror. The impact was hard to ignore, even for my peers. And this was already after they had been out for well over a decade.

You see, it isn't that kids won't read, or engage with old things; it is that they won't read, or engage with old things that aren't exciting. All human beings love adventure, and if they are not given one they will find someplace they can indulge in it. Hence we n one reads anymore. The adventure is gone.

It should be mentioned that this crisis in reading only exists because those in charge of the industry ceased publishing material normal people would want to read. You can do a search for videos on youtube and find all sorts of nostalgic pieces of Gen X and Y adults going on about this series and how much it boosted them up and how fondly they remember it--but many of these same people don't read anymore, or only read old books. In fact, some even collect CYOA now because of nostalgia and the concept, but they have no interest in reading newer books. How can that be the case? Wasn't the series a success? Didn't it make people want to read?

Well, yes, it was and it did. But you might have noticed the dates above. The series ceased being published in 1998, the nadir of culture. Aside from Harry Potter (and its hangers-on, which, let's face it, were read by women, not kids) there was no move to get children interested in action or adventure again. The "Young Adult" demographic became synonymous with soap opera drama focus for horny middle-aged women while middle grade and younger books focused solely on a Peggy Charren-level of Edutainment and propaganda to mold kids into the shrieking pleasant people you see all over social media and in comments these days. Why don't kids read anymore? There isn't anything they want to read, because OldPub deliberately stopped giving it to them. They wanted to "teach" them instead. You have your answer as to why the audience left.

And yet, CYOA still has clout. To bring it back around again, in recent years there have even been game adaptions of old CYOA books such as House of Danger and War With the Evil Power Master. They were successful and, as far as I can tell, well liked. The influence of this series remains intact, even despite ending over 20 years ago. Though it is nice to see the relationship between gaming and writing also is as strong as it was when it all began. Even if each has had negative influence over each other, the truth remains that there is positive aspects to their relationship. This series and its enduring popularity is proof of it.

The secret is adventure, it's action, and it's excitement. You have to instill an excitement for the world around you in your reader. You need to show them there is more than waking up early on Monday and praying the week ends quickly, because there is. That's what adventure is all about and that's why it's so beloved.

Choose Your Own Adventure did that, but for kids. It is fondly remembered so long after ending for a reason, while the edutainment works of the same time period are not. Non-creative people like Peggy Charren should not be allowed to influence creative people or mess with their audience as we can currently see what their input offers. It isn't much. They have no place in this arena, and that becomes more obvious as time goes on.

This success that allows a series to last around two decades, and then be remembered long after, is the result of giving the customers what they want. And yet the old industry insists on not doing that. Is it any wonder NewPub exists at all? It was simply inevitable.

The First 60+ Books

It is fascinating to see how much has shifted over the last 20 years since the Choose Your Own Adventure line folded and reading is on life support as a hobby. While it is still remembered (even getting reprints and games based off of it) it looks like it might outlive the very industry that spawned it and allowed the concept through the door. Very odd, but at this stage, not totally unexpected. OldPub is done and over.

Nonetheless, there was a time when they did try and we'd do our best to remember that for the future. We're going to take what they've forgotten and move forward with it, as it is supposed to be done.

The future is excitement, action, and wonder. Get in, kids. The adventures are endless.


  1. Oh man, I loved CYOA books. I became picky about which ones I read, because the ones with fewer endings had more adventures than the ones with more endings. More endings, you die on every path except the right one. Less endings, you have time to wander around a bit before the path ends. I had one based loosely on Jurassic Park and it was so fun to try to not get eaten by the dinosaurs. :-D

    1. There were so many, I just picked the ones with the coolest titles. Pretty shallow, but I was rarely disappointed. lol

  2. JD

    Boy do I remember those. I did one of the D&D type books. I died 5 times before finally surviving:)
    They were such a blast and you'd laugh at the campy ways you died or succeeded


  3. Never read these, but the idea sounds fun. (And I've read lots of other old books, including recently the Prisoner of Zenda, which was a good recommendation by you.)

    I happened to end up seeing this post (while I'm not a fan of the website, some good things live there..,) that seemed relevant:

    The artist's work was loved by kids, but literally rejected for being too good. And it even had fun vs. no-imagination standard textbook illustrations--almost exactly what you were talking about with "education" vs. fun. (Though in this case it was for a schoolbook, so there is some reason for it.)

    Hope that artist can find new, fun jobs and won't get wrecked by "no hurt feelings" OldPub mentality.

    1. Thanks for the link! It's definitely eye-opening.

    2. You're welcome! I hope it opens the eyes of the artist and some of her followers too. Something this unsubtle, I hope, will get them thinking!