The road not taken, in books | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 13, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:45 AM, August 13, 2020


The road not taken, in books

Did you love reading Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books as a child? If yes, jump on down to the next paragraph! If no, your adventure ends here. There’s no treasure at the end of this nostalgic rainbow.

One day many years ago, discovering my cousin's tattered copy of a Give Yourself Goosebumps book completely changed my ideas about what books could be. The books provided a rare opportunity for children to make big decisions in a fictional world. Even the death of a character meant little in these books—we could rewrite the fate of the character we're representing or alter the entire plot as a whole! Choose Your Own Adventure novels were genre-defining in the world of children's books, and addictive for a child.

In 1969, American author Edward Packard realised this—he found that his children loved bedtime stories where they got to choose the endings. This inspired him to write a book in which the reader could dictate how the story transpired. When Packard finally secured R A Montgomery's publishing house, the project didn't quite take off. Montgomery persisted and found a new champion in literary agent Joëlle Delbourgo at Bantam Books. The books were printed and handed out at book fairs and the success was explosive! All the way from USA, Choose Your Own Adventure books even reached the hidden corners of Nilkhet, Boi Bichitra, and all of my book shopping lists.

The burgeoning new trend in print media would be adopted by several popular series of the time including Sweet Valley, The Babysitter's Club, Disney and Star Wars. Although the market was soon oversaturated with different versions of CYOA, it left a new spark in storytellers. As technology evolved, it allowed sounds and graphics to amplify the experience of interactive fiction. Platforms like Twine—an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories—allowed young and aspiring writers to create a story map and publish their work online.

As you click through Arboretum by Matthew Seiji Burns—one of my personal favourites—or any other text adventure on Twine, you are greeted by the twittering of birds as if you're in an actual bird sanctuary. Small "shuffling" animations indicate changes in the story's tone or timeline. These atmospheric features allow the text, and the plot, to be the main-driving force, but help create a stronger emotional impact by engaging the audience's different senses. Other stories even have moving characters, animated backgrounds, and voiced dialogue—they solidify the author's imagined world more clearly for the reader, but can admittedly leave little to the imagination.

Around 2013, Android apps began creating their own litany of CYOA games—those garish 'Chapters/Episodes' ads that keep popping up between Instagram stories, or more substantive ones like 'Choice of the Deathless'. Titles such as Depression Quest (2013) or Her Story started taking players on thrilling journeys where the monsters are entirely psychological. As the format adapted to cater to an adult audience, it called for deeply personal stories and allowed readers to make brave choices for characters that they might not in their own life. It is for this audience that the web series Black Mirror created the interactive film Bandersnatch (2018) on Netflix, and raised a brief resurgence of CYOA in popular media.

While digital media kept innovating, traditional books also continued to produce a steady stream of CYOA books and novels. Ryan North reinvented Shakespeare with Romeo and/or Juliet (2016), in which one can read the play as its titular, or more obscure, characters. In 2018, Dana Schwartz wrote Choose Your Own Disaster—the world's first long-form Buzzfeed quiz disguised as a memoir. The list continues, with many hilarious, riveting, and hair-raising tales that are being produced even now, in different and innovative media.


Selima Sara Kabir is a research associate at the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, where she combines her love for reading, writing, and anthropological research.

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