Why we love to Choose Our Own Adventure

Leslie Jamison writes about the enduring allure of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The books, Jamison writes, gave young readers a "sense of agency" in limited and rule-bound lives–and the pleasure of dying without death, over and over and over.

Andrea helped her father come up with the idea for "The Cave of Time" during a road trip. They were in his orange Volkswagen Squareback—with a stick holding up one window, and no seat belts in the back—going to see his mother on the North Fork of Long Island. Packard told his daughters and their younger brother that he had a contract with Bantam and he needed ideas. Andrea had recently gone spelunking at summer camp, crawling into a small cave beneath the main cave, farther than anyone else, and felt torn between exploring more—had anyone ever seen these tunnels?—and returning to safety. When she suggested the idea to her father—a cave whose deepest tunnels transported you through time—he said, "Great idea! Get started!," and handed her a yellow composition pad. "The Cave of Time" credits Andrea with "concept, title, and editorial assistance," and she has always received a percentage of the royalties.

The two men who built the series were expected to write six books each a year! I remember the CYOA books, but in my native Britain the home-grown Fighting Fantasy series (and similarly RPG-influenced fare such as Lone Wolf and that one with all the ninjas and cosmic horrors) is probably the more widely-shared experience for that generation of youngsters. Jamison nails the peculiar second-person otherness of all of them, the multiplicity of selves all waiting the authors' judgements, and the knowledge that the reward for cheating is paradise.