Choose Your Own Adventure series
by various authors but usually Edward Packard or RA Montgomery
Bantam Books (1979-1998)
***Part three of a summer-long series in which we re-examine the holiday books we loved as children***
You Are A... by Pat Black
WARNING!! The chapters in the following review should not be read in numerical order. You, the reader, are the hero or heroine of this story. You will be presented with choices at the end of each section and you must go to the corresponding chapter associated with each outcome.
Good luck... in your journey you will face great peril, high adventure, a few too many adjectives and annoyingly complex sentence construction. Why can’t I just keep things simple? Sheesh.
Oh, sorry, it’s not about me, it’s about you. Let’s go then.
If you choose to continue your adventure, go to 2.
If you choose to sack this off, close the page and stick the kettle on or something.
Gaah, there are some ideas you just wish you’d had yourself, aren’t there? Simple but brilliant – like one of those choppy household appliance items that you only see advertised in the dead of night or during daytime TV. You feel strangely compelled to reach for the phone. With an enormous effort, you stop yourself just in time.
Choose Your Own Adventure is one such idea. A series of children’s novels where you – that’s right, second-person old you – are the star. Brightly illustrated (usually by Paul Granger), distinctively red-and-white spined, these books sold a phenomenal amount of copies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They were a fantastic window not just into worlds of adventure on this planet and others, in the past or in the future, but also into the world of books and literature. If you’re in your thirties then there’s every chance that you encountered and loved these books.
Beyond their out-of-sequence paging gimmick, the formula is loose, free-wheeling. The illustrations could show either a boy or a girl, black or white, but beyond that, you are you, right in the thick of it. And you’ve got choices to make. Including this one.
If you want to have a historical adventure, go to 4.
If you fancy going forward in time, go to 7.
Everything blows up! You are mince. You are sushi. You are salsa. You are milkshake.
Ha ha! You didn’t see that coming, did you? Well, what would life be without surprises?
Go back to 4 or 10, and don’t let me catch you in here again.
The first book in the series, the Cave of Time, was written by Edward Packard and featured a series of tunnels for you to head down, taking you to different areas of history. There was also the sequel, Return To the Cave of Time, which saw you meeting the same strange dude and going through the same caves to get your freak on with dinosaurs and cavemen and King Arthur and all the rest of it. It was fantastic! It’s a great idea. These were called “gamebooks” to tie in with another early ‘80s children’s publishing craze, the terminally boring “Fighting Fiction” roll-a-dice Dungeons-and-Dragons style books.
Christ, you were bored by those, weren’t you? Admit it, they were too bloody complicated, it was too fiddly scrubbing out your scores and weapons ratings and they tended to get repetitive if you took a wrong turning. Not so with Choose Your Own Adventure; you were free from dice, broken pencils, scored-out foolscap and all the rest of it, there were a load of cracking little stories and adventures to go on in one book, and not one of them outstayed their welcome.
In the series you also had a go at taking on the Nazis in an Alpine setting (Sabotage, by Jay Leibold), or trained yourself in the art of ninjitsu (Secret of the Ninja, by the same author). Although the latter lost a hell of a lot of points by being actually quite philosophical and constrained by the real world and tea rites. Whereas you simply wanted to chop people up with giant shiny swords, fling bladed stars into their eyes and genuinely kick ass. Making a nuisance of yourself! Crunching crisps into the carpet! Karate-kicking Mr Barry’s rickety old garden fence! Didn’t you, you nasty little tyke?!
Spy For George Washington (Leibold again! Clearly he was the go-to guy for historical action) took you back to the American revolutionary war, while myths n’ legends were also woven in with Ellen Kushner’s Outlaws of Sherwood Forest. But these books, while interesting and mildly educational, didn’t float your boat, did they? No they didn’t. Why don’t we get the hell out of here then?
To have a mystery adventure, go to 6.
To go to outer space, or another world, go to 7.
To press the big red button, go to 3.
You write and you write and you write, and you keep hustling, and finally you catch a break. Money will come your way – maybe not millions, but that’s not what it’s about, though, is it? Having said that, you might want to pay off The Mob ASAP because they’ve sent you several warnings already. Just sayin’. Remember what happened to little Marco.
There is a way to change all this... but to do so, you have to go back to 2. And think things over.
Your favourite might have been the mysteries. Proper little Nancy Drew, weren’t you? Finding out secrets. Sniggering about them with the other girls. Playing murder in the dark on sleepovers. Keep the noise down, I said! Well, there was plenty of fun to be had here if so. Shannon Gilligan’s The Mystery of Ura Senke – and you had fun with that title, didn’t you? “The Mystery of Ura Nidiot, pffffttt!” – put you in Kyoto, Japan, and had you tracing an ancient tea bowl stolen by the Yakuza. The Mardi Gras Mystery by Louise Munro Foley had you working in a curiosity shop while some strange people attempted to nick valuable stuff, taking you into strange places in the night as you track them down. This one was actually quite weird, with its New Orleans setting and a hint of voodoo. And if you’re a boy maybe you looked at the female “you” in the story – at one point, dressed up as a cat at a fancy dress party – and you maybe thought you some thoughts.
Maddeningly, you maybe didn’t ever get to read Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? A mansion house murder mystery that had a blinding concept. You are the detective... you get to solve the case and follow the clues! Except, it’s never in stock in your local shop! Bah. Where’s Amazon when you need it? Oh, that’s right, this is the 1980s.
To go on a perilous journey in the natural world, go to 8.
To go into space, man, go to 7.
To make the perfect Windsor knot, ask your dad.
Space. That’s where’s it’s at. Space was the setting for the first Choose Your Own Adventure Superadventure, weighing in at a whopping 300 pages with all-new purple spines and covers, ‘cos you’re growing up now and you don’t need these silly kids’ books any more. Where are the old one? I gave them away to your brattish cousin, Jed, who used to irritate the life out of you by pawing over your books and bending the covers and turning the pages like he’s rolling hay bales down a frigging hill and now, now, he’s got them all. To himself. And no-one asked you if this was alright. Well, why should they? You don’t matter. No-one cares about you.
Don’t you dare give me the evil eye! Come here... slap!
So anyway, space, and your Buck Rogers-esque Journey To The Year 3000, by the irrepressible Mr Packard. In this one you woke up from hypersleep... except your face was covered by actual gummy-eye sleep, more than a thousand years’ worth of it. And it showed you this in the picture! Urgh! Eye cheese, man. Eye cheese.
You also blasted off into strange territory with Prisoner of the Ant People, a decidedly loopy entry from Packard’s fellow series stalwart, RA Montgomery. You and your Martian friend must battle giant ants under the control of this total eejit called the Evil Power Master. And you read and accepted all of this with barely a flicker, barely recognising any irony at all, not seeing any allegories of any kind. That’s because by this point you are an addict. A dirty, filthy, Choose Your Own Adventure junkie, whose heart only kicks in piteously whenever you see those white spines, red borders, with the yellow numbers you haven’t collected yet at Woolworths. “Please, mum, just one more. Please. I need it, mum. I won’t ask you again, I swear. I won’t let you down again, mum. I’ll change, mum! Honest I will!” And she gives in as usual.
Inside UFO 54-40, by Packard, might be the second book in this series you ever bought. And while you didn’t really like it at the time, you appreciate it for the little sliver of genius it is now. In this story, you get captured by some aliens during an incident on board a transatlantic flight, with the latitude of 54 degrees, longitude 40 degrees (nice vocabulary building there, gents, nice one). The many weird adventures included meeting all sort of aliens, some with laser guns which go (blat), blatting you out of existence. Most striking to me now is the creature that takes a shine to you and wants to get married. She has a very odd looking head, with a vertical as opposed to horizontal mouth, with nice thick lips. Well, it might not be a she. But you assume it’s a she, for some strange reason.
Anyway what’s really outstanding about this book is that it’s got a crackerjack central conceit; you can go to Ultima, the planet of Paradise. There are references throughout, and you know it’s there because you’ve flicked past the pages and you’ve seen the illustrations and, finally, you cracked and read the Ultima chapter. “You’re finally here, on the planet of Paradise,” it told you. “You got here without making any choices at all.” You didn’t understand, though – and then you got crafty. You went through the book, didn’t you, looking through every single choice open to you, and not one of them told you where to go (you remember the page, even to this day – 101, wasn’t it?) to get to Ultima. All that time, and you didn’t get it! Ha ha!
To die a horrible, violent death, go to 10.
To go on a historical adventure, go to 4.
To go to a dangerous place somewhere in the world, go to 8.
To learn your fortune, go to 5.
You take a little drink, you bang the dinner table, you clear your throat, and you opine that the series was at its best when it took you on a rollicking, freewheeling adventure in the natural world. Now, take Montgomery’s Journey Under The Sea. It really enchanted you, you say – enchanted, you say again, because you’ve had a bit much and it was probably a mistake to drink Jessica’s White Spirit Punch on top of the wine – enchanted you, with its simple tale of a wee man who goes down into the drink in his submarine. Sharks, giant squid, people from Atlantis, bottomless sea canyons. No one has ever gone so deep. And that was you! You, out there in the deep, in your wetsuit, with your speargun.
There’s no reply from the other guests, and you’re too far gone to pick up on the eye-to-eye contact between them as, tragically, you press on. How about Terror Island, then? Tony Koltz was the writer, there. It was some nonsense about your 50-foot ketch, the Starbuck, and there was a tyrannosaurus rex there, but you threw a javelin into its throat and killed it. It was it, or you. You had no choice, man!
Then there’s the first one you ever read – D. Terman’s By Balloon To The Sahara. Thrilling moment where you have to use a jack-knife to cut the fabric of the balloon to let out some air. Or the undersea escape scene, where you lean that you have to exhale as you swim to the surface or your lungs will pop. Man. You loved that. That was you, hooked.
Or how about Debra Terne Goodman’s Vanished! Where you were in the Bermuda Triangle, and you might add, you were quite a foxy chick in that one. That might have been one of the last you read, in fact. That was the point you moved on to other things. You put the childish things away, and you moved on. Moved on... You sob. The memories. Everything gets blurry. Oh my god, you’ve really done it this time! Guffaw! The photos from later on will be posted online by these so-called clowns you call friends almost before your chronically foggy synapses have processed the fact that you’ve even done whatever it is you did. Gaah! Never again. You facepalm, you claw your own head as you lie there in your own stench, those bedclothes you should have changed weeks ago. And... Oh no, your shoes are still on. You’ve got to grow up. Get it together. Learn some lessons, for God’s sake!
To find out the answer to You Are A... go to 11.
To think of some adults-only mischief you could get up to in this series – and indeed to look at some ways in which some bright sparks have already done it, go to 12.
To choose one of the other sorta options you haven’t already chosen... Strewth, go back to the last one and work it out. Jeez, this is complicated, alright?
Here you are, then. You knew I’d slip one in, eh? Getting here was easy. Let’s take five. What are you for? Scotch? I’ve got the good stuff. Gin? A glass of wine? There’s tea if you want it. Plenty of ice, whatever you decide. If you’re hungry I can fix you something, too. There’s a cool breeze outside, and it’s early evening – not too hot, not too cold. You can hear the sea. You can stay as long as you like.
But don’t kid yourself, the main thing you remember about these books is the violent deaths. Often your fate comes out of nowhere – much as it might in real life – without any warning at all. You chose the left tunnel instead of the right tunnel, so you end up in a pit of tigers – the end. You decide to trust someone – the end. You stop at the island to get some supples. You hear some drums. They stop - the end. You get the picture.
The absolute highlights of these terminal moments – often lovingly illustrated – were the multiple shark attack of Journey Under The Sea, freeze-framing on your stricken little diver’s face as he is circled by a whole trawler-load of finned fiends; smashing your skull on the end of a boat in Vanished!; giant squid and shark attacks (after having your leg sliced open by knife) in the same book; being chopped up and dumped at sea by the Yakuza in The Mystery of Ura Senke (I’m sure sharks were involved there, too); a rather distressing drowning once you’d misjudged the angle to swim at against a current in the spy caper Your Code Name Is Jonah; and most appallingly, a graphic stabbing by nasty native Americans in Horror of High Ridge – which I’m sure showed a massive splodge of blood appearing from one character’s back.
It was annoying to get killed and end your journey, meaning you had to start again, but just so fantastic, too. In no other children’s books was such horrid blood-letting allowed and feasted upon so well. Was there a sardonic tone to the second-person narrator as you went to your maker? You’re damned right there was!
If you haven’t pushed the red button yet... go on, you know you want to... go to 5.
You Are A... What? Go to 11.
How about a mystery? Go to 6.
Outer space? Blast off at 7.
You Are A Shark, by Edward Packard. One of the very first books you think about when asked to recall a lovely summer reading experience as a child on your school holidays. Especially good if you liked sharks. You read it again and again and again, so that you could have every single self-contained adventure, whether you got killed in them or not. But the gimmick here was that you didn’t just get to be a shark – a great white, too! A big one! – but you could go any other sort of animal you wished. Soaring eagles... lions... even a good old English sheepdog... half the fun was in finding out what creature you could go next, with your strange powers.
Will you ever forget the description you got as you transmigrated into a shark? “You feel as if you’re all teeth!”
Looking at the complete list of books online, you notice there were a few other You Are A... books in the series – how you would have loved You Are A Monster, eh? Imagine that. You Are A Genius and You Are A Millionaire were to follow, I see; topped off by the laugh-out-loud ouroboroid entry, Who Are You? But you never got to read any of these ones. Sadly, when You Are A Teenager, you stop reading these lovely wee books. But they’re still out there.
To feel as if you’re all ironic, go to 12.
If you like The Doors, go to 13.
If you’ve had enough of this, go to the very end of the review to find out where we’re off to next.
The author Kim Newman has written his own Choose Your Own Adventure style-novel, called Life’s Lottery. You guess the format isn’t entirely original, or there’d be lots of lawsuits, and you’re sure someone wrote a Choose Your Own Jane Austen Adventure book a few years back. You look at Google. Yep, there it is – Being Elizabeth Bennet, by Emma Campbell Webster.
The format is ripe for reimagining, especially when it comes to erotica. Your sexy neighbour is doing the gardening. To stick your head over the fence and ask if he wants a cup of tea, because it’s awfully hot, go to.... Or to just go for it and get your two-piece on, asking for help to put on some sunblock, go to... You get the idea. And I’m stopping right here.
Places to go you haven’t been? I recommend going back to 1. Start again. Otherwise, that really is
****I hope you enjoyed the journey. Next, we go back to first person, and – strewth, set lashings of lemonade to stun! – an encounter with the one and only... well, the five and only, Famous Five.****