Even if you didn’t love reading, there may have been one book that seemed like you were experiencing a real-life video game
Choose Your Own Adventure books were a series of kids gamebooks popular in the 1980s. They were written from a second-person point of view where the reader became the protagonist making choices which would alter the story. The books would go on to sell over 350 million copies through the ’80s.
If there’s one strong memory I have from being a kid it was discovering the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I genuinely liked reading and even at a young age was big into the Narnia books. But with Choose Your Own Adventure it was like discovering a game changer. They were so interactive and immersive that you couldn’t help but feel like part of the story.
This is the pre Never Ending Story days that I feel captured on this a little bit. I also remember keeping one of these books in my desk while in third grade and trying to read sneakily as I couldn’t wait to see what happens.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one into them. I’ve learned what a massive success this book series was and lasted a good couple of decades. Also fun fact; The font used for the titles on the books is part of the inspiration for the Stranger Things logo.
Alright, let’s get started. You can listen to the podcast version here:
Or if you want to learn the origin story of Choose Your Own Adventure go to Chapter 1. And if you’d rather learn about the guy who created them, skip to chapter 2.
1. A Bedtime Story
Not the epic Slick Rick song but our story begins with Edward Packard and his daughters. Packard loved to tell bedtime stories to his daughters and he based them around the adventure stories of a boy named Pete. Packard used this character and had him encountering all these different adventures on an isolated island.
One night however Packard realized he was running out of things for Pete to do. Bedtime was starting to go into reruns. He decided to just ask his daughters “what would you do?” His daughters would come up with different paths for the story to take and then thought up a different ending for each of them.
The girls had a lot of natural enthusiasm for this type of story that Packard immediately picked up on. He then wondered “could I write this down?”
If you want to see how this story continues move to chapter 2 or if you want to learn more about the format of the books go to chapter 4.
2. Edward Packard & The Early Days Of Choose Your Own Adventure
Our story continues, as most popular things from the 80s do, in the late 1970s. Edward Packard had the original concept as early as 1969 when he released a book called The Adventures Of You On Sugarcane Island. This would be the exact prototype that Bantam would eventually
Packard knew he had a pretty cool concept on his hands and he connected with the William Morris Agency to help distribute the book. In 1970 the agency stated to shop around The Adventures Of You On Sugarcane Island but it was rejected by all the major publishers.
This seems to always be the case with anything that ends up successful. Don’t give up on your dreams kids.
It took SIX YEARS before someone was ready to publish him. In 1976 Vermont Crossroads Press published the book and it was pretty well received. Publishers Weekly called it “an original idea, well carried out.” Working with a publisher there named Ray Montgomery, Packard’s book ended up selling 8,000 copies which were a pretty large amount for a small publishing house.
If you want to see how these became the Choose Your Own Adventure Books keep reading to chapter 3 or if you want to learn about the origin story go to chapter 1.
3. Becoming Choose Your Own Adventure
In 1977-78 another publishing company called Lippincott would go on to publish the next two books that Packard had written. One called Dead Wood City and the other called The Third Planet From Altair.
This is where the publishers started to promote the unique format that these books were written in. On the covers, they alerted the readers to the unusual style of these books by saying that you would “choose your own adventure in the wild west”, or “choose your own adventure in space”.
This is when Bantam books come on the scene. In 1978 they saw the big potential that Packards books could have and started to publish these “interactive books”. This whole arrangement was done on an airplane when one of the publishers connected with the head of marketing for Bantam.
Vermont Crossroads Press had sold the rights to a company named Pocket Books and then the rights were transferred to Bantam. Now under the ownership of Bantam Packard wrote his first official Choose Your Own Adventure Book:
The Cave Of Time
If you want to learn more about the guy who created these books go back to chapter 2. If you want to see a list of some of the books go to chapter 5 or else move on to chapter 4
4. The Format Of Choose Your Own Adventure
The books were originally intended for those aged 7-14 and as I mentioned earlier they were written in a second-person format. You as the reader would become the protagonist and take on the role that was relevant to that adventure. Some of those roles would be:
- Private investor
- Mountain climber
- Race car driver
Through all the different stories the protagonist, aka you, was not specifically a certain race or even a gender but a lot of the imagery and illustrations did seem centered on being male. I knew as many girls though who loved these books as much as boys.
So once you start reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book you would face two to three options within the first couple of pages. Each of these options would lead to many more options and then ultimately to one of many endings.
Do you remember trying to read ahead to cheat to get the best ending? Just me? O.k…
The number of endings in a book was not set and in the earlier books, you could have as many as 44 different endings. As the books progressed that number would go down to around 8. There was also no clear pattern among all the different books for various things including:
- Number of pages for the ending
- The ratio of good to bad endings
- Or your progression backward and forwards through the book
Since they didn’t follow a set formula regarding those three things it made each book incredibly unique. Each book had its own unique unpredictability and had the possibility of many repeat endings. This I think is what lead to the huge success of Choose Your Own Adventure. If you can create something that a kid feels is almost made just for them you have a goldmine on your hands. And they did.
This was also the case with Cabbage Patch Kid dolls as there were so many unique variations that every kid had their own version and not the one everyone else had. Make someone feel special and they happily open their wallets. Or scream at their parents to buy it for them.
If you feel you’re ready to end this story go to Ending # 1 or else keep reading
5. Some Popular Choose Your Own Adventure Titles
- The Cave Of Time
- Journey Under The Sea
- By Balloon To The Sahara
- Space And Beyond
- Inside UFO 54-40
- The Abominable Snowman
- The Forbidden Castle
- Underground Kingdom
- The Lost Tribe
- Lost On THe Amazon
- The Dragons Den
- Journey To Stonehenge
- Danger At Anchor Mine
- Return To The Cave Of Time
- Mystery Of The Secret Room
There are MANY more titles but some of these are the ones that stand out to me. Read on to chapter 6 or if you want to end your journey go to Ending # 2.
6. Losing The Trademark
The Choose Your Own Adventure books sold for a lot longer than I realized. After starting in 1979, and gaining their momentum through the ‘80s, they were still being published into 1998.
Bantam was now owned by Random House and for some reason they allowed the trademark to lapse. I’m not sure if this was unintentional, or they didn’t see any value in the books anymore, but Choose Your Own Adventure was up for grabs.
And who would grab it? A company named Chooseco. This company was owned by Ray Montgomery who was the publisher at the old Vermont Crossroads press that published The Adventures Of You On Sugarcane Island back in 1976.
It’s almost like its own real-life Choose Your Own Adventure. With Chooseco, Montgomery was able to reissue old version of Choose Your Own Adventure along with gamebook version that had become developed.
Packard started his own company in 2010 called U-Ventures that started releasing their own Choose Your Own Adventure style apps for iPads and iPhones. The app versions are based on some of the original titles and stories and the first one released was The Cave Of Time.
Ending # 1
Choose Your Own Adventure continues to live on and still pops up every now and then. In 2007 a lawsuit was filed against Chrysler when commercials for the Jeep Patriot started using a “Choose your own adventure” style. It was a blatant rip-off and an ad campaign hoping to capture nostalgia in its customers. Which I totally get.
They’ve faded out a bit but continue to live on in app form and you can still track down the books on Amazon and eBay.
O.K that was considered the crappy ending but you’re the one who chose it… Don’t worry just finish off with Ending # 2
Ending # 2
I’ll always remember and love these books. You might feel the same too and will maybe go digging in old boxes to see if you have any kicking around. For any generation, there’s always a sense of wonder and amazement when you’re of a younger age. The ‘80s was able to capture that in so many ways and the Choose Your Own Adventure books did that better than anything.
This was an era when a lot of things were vying for your attention and it was cool that a good old-fashioned storybook was able to compete with juggernauts like Atari, NES, Saturday morning cartoons and some of the best toys in history.
Your journey is now at an end.