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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Shehan Karunatilaka

How Choose Your Own Adventures helped me win the Booker prize

Shehan Karunatilaka won the Booker prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
‘The Choose Your Own Adventure books appealed to nerdy kids in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I grew up in the 80s’ … Shehan Karunatilaka. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The hero of a kids’ book doesn’t usually die. In Choose Your Own Adventure books, a children’s series that has sold more than 270m copies and been translated into 40 languages since its launch in 1979, the hero dies multiple times, in unpleasant, unexpected and often grotesque ways. And that hero happens to be You.

You, the reader, addressed in the second person, make choices every few pages, to find out who killed Harlowe Thrombey, to seek the lost jewels of Nabooti, uncover the secret of the pyramids, or escape being a prisoner of the Ant People. And while some endings can be deemed happy, in most scenarios you end up dead. You can get eaten by insects, rodents, goblins or intergalactic meatpackers. Stabbed by ghosts, lanced by knights, or executed by gangsters. You fall down mineshafts, off cliffs, into wormholes, and perish in every conceivable natural catastrophe.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books appealed to nerdy kids in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I grew up in the 80s; they were read by kids around the world. First in school libraries and then bookshops, where you’d find them on the shelf next to the Enid Blytons our parents would recommend. The adventures had provocative titles, intriguing cover art and the promise that you could choose from up to 33 endings.

Choose Your Own Adventure Series

Of course, it was the covers that grabbed us most, those distinctive white sleeves with red branding and an arch-shaped portal that was our gateway into genre fiction. The heroes and villains of spy thrillers, space operas, westerns, fantasies, horrors and time-travel escapades gaped at us through that mysterious portal.

Two authors dominated the early books: Edward Packard and RA Montgomery. Packard, a New York lawyer, stumbled on the idea in the 1960s, as many kids’ books writers do, by making up bedtime stories for his daughters. Unable to decide on one ending for a tale, he created strange stories of forking paths, where his children could provide the direction and plot the fate of the lead character.

Choose Your Own Adventure Series

Montgomery was an independent publisher in Vermont who read the first book, Sugarcane Island, in 1975, after it had been shopped around and rejected for most of that decade. After a few false starts and disappointments, he found a home for the series at Bantam, who commissioned a dozen books in 1981, setting in motion a prolific and lucrative partnership.

The early titles, with illustrator Paul Granger’s quirky, beguiling artwork, remain the most collectible, at least among gen Xs looking to bequeath their nostalgia to their distracted gen Z kids. The cover wasn’t always true to the story (the enigmatic sorcerer on the front of the first book, The Cave of Time, for example, does not feature in the story), but images such as the humpback whale surrounded by cold war spies in Your Code Name Is Jonah, the feral chimps in House of Danger (later made into an interactive video game), and the eponymous blood-sucker in Vampire Express, were good at parting 10-year-old kids from their pocket money.

Choose Your Own Adventure Series

While a total of 184 titles were to be published over two decades, employing dozens of writers and illustrators, it’s widely felt among early adopters that Packard, Montgomery and Granger are still the OGs. Packard’s books are twisted genre-tales peppered with black humour. Montgomery’s are high-concept stories, usually set in exotic locations across space and time.

In his 90s, Packard gave Leslie Jamison an interview for the New Yorker, in which he said each protagonist of a Choose Your Own Adventure book contained “multitudes” that a young reader could explore. It wasn’t always easy to predict or direct your fate. You might follow a sensible set of options in one reading and a more adventurous path in another. Though neither guaranteed that you wouldn’t end up in the jaws of a sabre-toothed predator.

The unnamed “You” in each book was originally meant to be a gender-neutral figure that could be equipped with specialist skills – such as archery in The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest, or computer wizardry in Supercomputer – but largely remained a blank slate for the reader to imbue with character traits. The illustrations depicted a young, predominantly male, somewhat androgynous hero, as successive publishers bowed to the age-old wisdom that girls may read stories with boy heroes but never vice versa.

Some of the more surreal endings were no doubt designed to warp young minds and keep the overworked writers entertained. These involved being reincarnated as a slaughterhouse pig with human consciousness (You Are a Shark), being sawn in half by a trans-dimensional portal (Inside UFO 54-40), being sent to a school for terrorists (Hostage!), or melting into the stars in a Kubrick-esque odyssey (Space and Beyond).

In Packard’s Hyperspace, you get to meet the author in the fifth dimension and then watch him being ripped apart in a cosmic anomaly. You also end up in the dream of an old man and are told you will die when he wakes up. But the greatest ending would have to be in Inside UFO 54-40, where after being abducted by aliens and displayed in an intergalactic zoo, you are told to find the paradise planet of Ultima. The only way to reach it is by cheating – ignoring all the options and forking paths and going straight to the conclusion on page 102. Was this a Zen koan for 10-year-olds about finding enlightenment by rejecting rules and conventional pathways? Or a tacit acknowledgment from the writers and publishers that everyone cheats?

Every reader would ignore the warning at the start of each book that you cannot go back once a decision is made. You could flip back a few pages and undo a bad decision. You tried out every option and scenario in every story until you found that golden ending.

The demise of the franchise was predictable. It had occupied a cultural sweet spot in the 80s, just before the rise of role-playing gamebooks such as Dungeons and Dragons, and before our hand-held game consoles became fully immersive and interactive narrative machines.

The series languished in the 1990s, before being discontinued in 1999 and its trademark allowed to lapse. However, Montgomery and his wife, Shannon Gilligan, resurrected the franchise under the Chooseco company while Packard rebooted his titles under a new company called U-ventures.

The books may not be the cultural phenomena they once were, but they still shift close to a million copies each year and are nostalgically referenced in movies such as 2019’s Knives Out, in which Christopher Plummer played a murder victim named Harlan Thrombey. You’ll find them echoed in celebrity autobiographies, such as Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography, and in the Black Mirror interactive film, Bandersnatch, for which Netflix was later sued by Chooseco, claiming their brand was unfairly used. Netflix countered that the term Choose Your Own Adventure was now in general parlance. The lawsuit was settled out of court. It is true that this phenomenal series has entered the vernacular and been ceaselessly imitated, though rarely bettered. There is a Choose Your Own Adventure exhibit open at the Story Museum in Oxford, and the TV show Stranger Things, a bastion of 80s nostalgia, recently released its own franchise book titled Heroes and Monsters, which charts the unexplored forking paths of season 4 in the series.

But for this writer, there remains far more than nostalgia and gruesome deaths. When attempting my last book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, I was confronted with the challenge of getting a dead man to narrate an entire novel in the second person. While some claimed it to be a fool’s errand, and asked why I’d draw inspiration from a franchise written in the second person, I boldly replied, “Why ever not?”

“If you choose to attempt a novel in the second person, turn to page 100 and proceed to type.” In the end, that’s what I chose. And the outcome proved not too unfavourable.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the 2022 Booker prize.

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