You’re a Prisoner of the Ant People, What Do You Do?

Posted on February 3, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction, Web Resources |

A. Lie still on the floor.
B. Attack them.
C. Concentrate on excreting pheremones that will drive them away or make you their leader.
D. Search the cave for the naturally occuring components of boric acid.

That’s right. CYOA. Time to read like it’s 1983! For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, the Choose Your Own Adventure books, many of them still in print (!), were as hot among middle-schoolers in the mid-eighties as Sudoku puzzles are among the middle-aged today. And, hmmmm, there’s a lotta overlap in those two populations–I’ll have to ponder that at greater length later.

Each CYOA book, written in the second person, set up an opening scenario: you’re alone in a room with an strange object; you’re stranded in an exotic location with only basic survival tools; you’re a spy on a deep-cover assignment; you’re, well, a prisoner of the ant people. The opening scenario might be a paragraph, might be two or three pages. At the end, you’d get a choice like the one that opens this blog entry. It would take you to a particular page in the book and from there you’d read another few paragraphs or pages and get to select a path from another set of options. The books were written generally, but not exclusively for boys–that second-person narration left a fair lot of room for girls to play too. Though perhaps the prevalence of the “Attack them” option could be interpreted as a gendered response?

At any rate–the CYOA books, while not great literature, were an important part of my middle-grade reading diet. Why?

1. Great social leveler. We all read them. The insufferable smart kid (me), the kid who’s now serving time for armed robbery, the girls who are now accountants and nurses, the four boys whose parents were splitting up, the kid with severe epilepsy and brain damage, the girl whose babysitter was turning tricks upstairs. We all shared the classroom library copies and, when those fell apart, even each other’s personal copies. It gave us a common, totally voluntary experience (a reading experience!) to share and discuss at length.

2. Bad endings. Nothing said GAME OVER like turning to page 105 and finding out that the serum I’d just swallowed was a lethal poison. A deterrent? No way. I’d go back and make another choice. And that’s where it got interesting. Sometimes I’d discover there were no really good choices on a page and I’d have to work further back in the decision tree to get to a really cool ending. We all shared a lot of information on and had a lot of good arguments about this aspect of the books. Searching for the way out of the ant colony, we were learning a sophisticated lot about cause and effect, story structure, and rhisomal narratives–a key concept in both postmodern literature and hypertextuality. It’s worth noting that many video games follow this same structure…;-)

3. Power. Reading a CYOA book, *I* was always the main character, capable of making things happen or unmaking them. While I loved being able to vicariously enjoy the adventures of fictional characters, getting to BE the character was a thrill all its own. And I’m betting that element was a big part of the draw for the more reluctant readers in our bunch too.

So, well and good, it’s been a nice trip for me down nostalgia lane. But don’t worry. There’s something here for the rest of you too. I believe the valuable experiences my classmates and I shared through CYOA books are replicable–and not just in video game form. The books, as the earlier Wikipedia link indicates, are generally still in print and there are all kinds of print spinoffs that use the same concept.

I’d like to say, best of all, there are now CYOA websites. HOWEVER–most of them contain significant adult content. Google Earth is the possible exception–it apparently has a Carmen Sandiegoesque CYOA that would probably be both home and school appopriate. I think loading Google Earth on my aging machine would about kill it though, so I have left that link unexplored.

Before blogging, I spent some time clicking through all the other Wikipedia links, and though there are some great hyperlinked CYOA stories for kids out there, they exist on the very same sites as stories like “Smutty Sex Romp” and “Super Trooper Blood Bath.” Yeah. Limits their usefulness at school to about zero and their usefulness at home to “Supervision Only Toy.” If you’re brave and you want to find kids’ CYOA stories online, I’d recommend the CYOA Wiki, My Adventure Game and Make Your Own Adventure. For teacher materials that might help elucidate other educational benefits of CYOA books, see Sundance Publishing.

And now, it’s time for me to make a break for it, out through the tunnel that leads to the light, scattering that Macgyver-would-be-proud boric acid as I go.

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