At the age of ten I discovered Choose Your Own Adventure books. I read them non-stop, almost obsessively, and, when I picture my childhood bookshelf in my mind, I can see whole rows of those thin white paperbacks with the numbers and red bubbles on the side.
If you’ve never read a Choose Your Own Adventure book before, they’re a little hard to explain. They’re not like much else in the “kid lit” market. They sort of resemble chapter books, in terms of length and reading level, but, structurally, they’re something completely different.
The structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is designed to make the reading experience immersive. They’re written from the rarely used second-person point-of-view – so the narrator is always referring to the reader as “You.” When a child opens a CYOA book, they’re told something like, “You are a child of the ruler of the famed lost city of Atlantis” or “You are a spy for the Galactic Union, on a smuggler’s spaceship traveling between worlds on a dangerous espionage mission,” thus setting the stage for the adventure to come. The lead character is never described in detail because “YOU” are that character.
After a two-page set-up, the reader is quickly presented with various choices that will dictate where the story can go – i.e. where the “choosing” of one’s own adventure begins. Are you going to stay at your base-camp in the Himalayas or are you going to go looking for your missing friend? Will you fight the giant squid or swim away? Will you join the space circus or carry on with your rocket-ship caravan across the stars? If you chose option A, turn to page 51. If choose pick option B, turn to page 52. And each choice leads to more choices and more choices and, eventually, an ending. And, if you don’t like your ending, you’re encouraged to re-read the book, make different choices, and follow a different path to a different ending.
While CYOA books don’t have the depth of emotion or character that a Newbery Medal-winning chapter book has, they are fantastic tools for introducing children to “branching narratives,” a form of storytelling that is flourishing lately thanks to video games and game apps for mobile devices. In such wildly influential video games like Assassin’s Creed and the Last of Us, children are being exposed to new kinds of interactive storytelling.
In many recent video games, players follow very fleshed-out, very detailed storylines – often written by novelists or screenwriters – and they can then watch those narratives alter or evolve based on the choices they’re making in the game. Video games are often built with multiple plotlines and endings, just so that the player can feel like they really have a hand in directing where the storyline goes. In Mass Effect, for example, the choices you make as your character can influence and customize the events you experience in every game in the series. It is a very modern, very immersive form of storytelling – the branching narrative – and the Choose Your Own Adventure series introduced children to the most basic form of the branching narrative in 1979.
What I loved about Choose Your Own Adventure books was how they gave me a sense of power and ownership over the narrative.
However, what I did NOT love about the books was that I could never fully relate to the characters because all the cover and interior illustrations were showed the hero as white. One cover even shows a defeated Black track star in the background while the foreground shows the image of a white girl, powerful, confident – a champion, ready to win her next race.
It is imperative that Black people – youth and adults – see ourselves in heroic roles, especially in gamebooks like Choose Your Own Adventure, which literally put the reader in the role of the hero.
That is why I have chosen to write an entire line of gamebooks for our youth and will release three this year:
Siafu Saves the World – a gamebook in which YOU are a superhero who must save Atlanta – and the world – from a curse brought on by police brutality; Jagunjagun Lewa – a Cyberfunk/Rococoa hybrid based on the manga I wrote about a warrior who travels with his brother, the mandrill Papio, seeking to make the African martial arts respected and revered around the world; and Siafu vs. The Horde – book 2 in the Black Power: The Superhero Gamebook series.
My CYOA-style book, The Keys, has long been a huge hit with youth and adults at conventions and festivals around the country.
These new series of books, however, not only give you choices, they allow you to do battle with your enemies and to find and use special weapons, tools and other devices to help you during your adventures. These books incorporate the use of a deck of regular playing cards as you read, giving you a fun, video-game like experience as you read and use your imagination.
In these gamebooks, YOU directly impact the world with your own actions. The stories are non-linear, non-sequential and have multiple pathways, divided into a series of numbered sections.
Different choices made within the stories can influence their final outcome.
YOU are the hero or shero. YOU determine how the story progresses and how it ends. YOU fight the bad guy and save the world. YOU see yourself on the cover and within the books pages.
These gamebooks are all about YOU. And all YOU need to do to get in on the fun and edutainment is to pick up a copy of our new and Blacktastic Siafu Saves the World (Black Power: The Superhero Gamebook) or our classic, The Keys and let the fun begin!