Though interactive novels giving kids control of their fictional destinies have been on bookstore shelves for decades, 2018 has brought a resurgence of the format, with at least a half-dozen publishers offering new entries across a variety of genres. We spoke to editors about their recent and forthcoming releases that put kids behind the storytelling wheel, and here pull together their thoughts on the appeal and value of letting kids propel the plot—and what’s fueling this apparent trend.
Not surprisingly, many credit the Choose Your Own Adventure series for originally igniting this middle-grade fiction phenomenon. After signing a six-book contract with the brainchild of the concept, the late R.A. Montgomery, Bantam went on to publish 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1999, plus nearly 100 books in various spin-off series. The notion of steering the story clearly revved-up readers: there were more than 250 million books in print in 38 languages when the series went out of print in 2004, and Montgomery founded a company called Chooseco to revive the series. Since the series’ 2006 relaunch, Chooseco has added 15 million copies to its in-print total.
That number will grow with recent releases, which include three reissues of top-selling Choose Your Own Adventure titles from the 1980s, penned by Deborah Lerme Goodman: The Magic of the Unicorn, The Throne of Zeus, and The Trumpet of Terror. And due in May 2019 are a pair of original titles in the spinoff Choose Your Own Adventure Spies series starring real-life historical figures: James Armistead Lafayette: Spy for the Revolution by Kyandreia Jones, and Katherine Factor’s Mata Hari: Dancer and Spy.
“Goodman’s novels did very well when they were first published more than 30 years ago, but they are doing even better now, which is fascinating—and gratifying,” said Shannon Gilligan, CEO and publisher at Chooseco, pointing to two “key editorial precepts” that she always follows. “You can’t correlate the right or good choice to a happy ending or correlate a bad or evil choice to an unhappy ending—that is not how life works,” she explained. “And the other guiding principle is to go light on the cognitive part of the story. If a book has an historical focus, it should be informative, but that can’t be the driving force—the entertaining storytelling must be.”
This past February, Penguin Workshop joined the game with the first book in Gabe Soria’s Midnight Arcade series, illustrated by Kendall Hale, Crypt Quest/Space Battles, a two-in-one adventure that plays out in video games—with the reader trapped inside, making high-stakes decisions. Set in various 1980s-era haunted video arcades and featuring the tag line, “Play Your Way,” the series added Excellent Ernesto Cousins 3/Wrestlevania in September; Fantastic Fist/MowTown is due in April 2019, and a fourth, still untitled book will pub in fall 2019.
Associate editor Karl Jones, who edits Midnight Arcade, noted that the series’ allure derives from its retro videogame vibe, given the current spiked interest in vintage gaming, while catering to the expectations of young gamers. “The new generation of internet games has more plot and character development,” he observed, “and a book is a great place to deliver that level of activity kids enjoy in videogames—and give them more bang for the buck. With two games per book, the series gives readers lots of choices, and since the art style varies according to the game’s setting and theme, each book has a different aesthetic and feel.”
Another role-playing series with a connection to games of yore debuted in September from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Inspired by the classic 1995 computer game The Oregon Trail (responsible for the dubbing of millennials as “The Oregon Trail Generation”), the Choose Your Own Trail series rolled out with four titles—The Race to Chimney Rock, Danger at the Haunted Gate, The Search for Snake River, and The Road to Oregon City—in which readers navigate their way on sequential legs of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City. The books, which are being released in the 175th anniversary year of the historical Oregon Trail pioneering journey, are also available in a boxed set, and will be followed next April by The Wagon Train Trek and Alone in the Wild, two standalone adventures.
Chris Krones, who steers the series editorially, believes that the choose-your-own format is an effective way to hook kids on history and “a great way to infuse information about the time period and how people survived the wild frontier.” Additionally, Krones praised the ability of interactive series to help kids hone their decision-making acumen, noting, “These books, like video games and other multiple-choice formats on platforms like Netflix, give the user the interactivity, agency, and power to survive. The survival genre paired with the choose-your-own format is a winning combination that just might last—we’ll have to see what readers choose for the format’s destiny!”
Nostalgia also sparked a Candlewick Entertainment series rooted in both the gaming and book worlds. Dungeons & Dragons: Endless Quest books are set in the Forgotten Realm of D&D, a role-playing game created in 1974 by TRS, which also released two series of Endless Quest tie-in gamebooks in the 1980s and ’90s. Written by Matt Forbeck, the new series was created in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, now the official D&D brand owners. Published in September, the launch titles are Into the Jungle, Escape the Underdark, To Catch a Thief, and Big Trouble.
Memories of her own childhood reading choices drew senior executive editor Sarah Ketchersid to the series. “It was so easy for me to step into these books, since I was such a fan of Choose Your Own Adventure as a kid,” she said. “I remember intentionally making reckless choices, because it was fun to discover where I’d end up. It’s empowering to realize that one small decision you make can have a huge effect.” Now, the editor acknowledges a down side to providing readers with multiple divergent paths. “These books are not easy to edit—in fact it’s very complicated,” she said. “You have to create flow charts to make sure that this or that made it into the right story thread. It can test your patience—and I can’t even imagine the challenges the copyeditors face!”
Readers play detective in two new series from HarperCollins. Mystery in the Mansion, an August title that kicked off Lauren Magaziner’s Case Closed series from Katherine Tegen Books, lets kids decide which suspects to interview and which clues to follow to crack a case involving an eccentric millionaire and buried treasure. The series’ second installment, Stolen from the Studio, will be released next August. “The books have lots of layers and riddles and puzzles challenge readers on different levels and in different ways, and if kids get stuck, they can ask for hints,” said executive editor Benjamin Rosenthal. “And they work well for a broad range of readers—they’re a good fit for the 8–12 audience, but also for younger kids who are advanced readers and older, more reluctant readers.”
Another book in the mystery genre is on the horizon from HarperCollins Children’s Books: Super Mysterious Puzzlers, a collection of mystery stories for kids to solve, edited by Chris Grabenstein. Recently acquired by executive editor David Linker and planned for 2020 release, the book includes tales by Grabenstein, Peter Lerangis, Ridley Pearson, Grace Lin, and others. Linker noted that the appeal of the choose-your-own format is, for him, “strangely personal. I was a fairly reluctant reader until my mother introduced me to the Choose Your Own Adventure and Encyclopedia Brown series. Both engaged me in the story in a way I’d never been before. I’m hoping Super Mysterious Puzzlers will help do the same for the new generation of smart puzzle-solvers out there.”
Quirk’s Comic Quests series tweaks the format with its graphic-novel, “pick-your-panel” concept. Visuals drive kids’ choices, as doors, paths, and signs feature numbers that direct readers to other numbered panels as they solve a sequence of puzzles. Originally published in France, the series kicked off in September with Hocus & Pocus: The Legend of Grimm’s Woods by Manuro, illustrated by Gorobei, set in a world inspired by fairytales; and Knights Club: The Bands of Bravery, a medieval-themed quest by Shuky, illustrated by Waltch and Novy. Kids can further explore these realms in January’s Hocus & Pocus: The Search for the Missing Dwarves and Knights Club: The Message of Destiny.
Publisher Brett Cohen, who acquired six titles in the series, remarked that Comic Quest appears at a time of rising popularity of graphic novels for kids, video games and apps. He described the series’ offerings as “books that play like apps. It’s a way of having a videogame concept without the screen, which to me, as a reader and lover of videogames, and as the father of a middle-grade child, is very appealing.”
As is being the driver of the action rather than the passenger, Cohen added. “Choosing your path has a natural appeal,” he said. “At times it’s nice to have a bit of control and ownership of the story—particularly in these times when so many things seem to be spiraling out of our control.”