I have to say that one of the best things about being a Dad and having young kids is that you often times get to re-experience the things you loved as a kid through their eyes. These things are sometimes obvious, when you are a geek even more so. My kids love Star Wars, Marvel comic characters, Masters of the Universe, and even most older video games like Legend of Zelda.
And so far most of these things have been fairly easy since we live in a culture obsessed with the things of the past, and franchises like Marvel and Star Wars continue to put themselves at the forefront of the pop culture zeitgeist, thus naturally they have plenty of exposure to it. Masters of the Universe was a bit more tricky given its not really popular in the mainstream consciousnesses any more but still there’s enough toys and interest that it hasn’t been hard to cultivate that either.
However, what’s more interesting is when the kids pick up on things I used to like for no other reason that they too also found their way to it without my influence. Those connections are much more of a surprise and in a way much more exciting, mainly because it could have been a part of my youth even I have long since forgotten about yet once it’s back in front of my face, I wonder why I did because it’s still so very neat!
One such recent example of this was my son Jakob’s discovery of the line of “Choose your own Adventure” books. I will say it wasn’t totally out of the blue as it was one of my old books that he found at my mom’s house, but I will say that “Master of Kung Fu” was a book I forgot I even owned until he came trotting over and asked me to read it with him. But boy o boy, to see his eyes light up when we did start reading it and then later watching him pick up the same habits all kids had with these books of keeping his finger on the page when he was given a choice, in case he made the wrong one and got the dreaded “The End” page, it filled my heart with joy and nostalgia.
For those of you that have been living under a rock, the CYOA books found mass circulation at book fairs and libraries throughout the 80s and 90s and mainly dealt with telling narratives in a non linear style in which at times allowed the reader to select which path they would like the story to go by selecting which next page to turn to. This simple notion was in some ways revolutionary in terms of storytelling, creating a unique “gaming” style interactivity with the book that had previously been unheard of. For younger kids used to being told to read so often by adults, these books gave them a sense of choice and control which was often times lacking in other stories.
Now I’m not sure if CYOA was the first book series to use this narrative trick, but I can say that they were one of the most famous and their white covers with striking blue font and red CYOA “balloon” bubble at the top were some of the most iconic books being carried around my elementary and middle school kids for years in backpacks on bus trips.
Some books such as the “Lone Wolf” or “Way of the Tiger” series would take the gaming aspects of these books to more of an extreme in order to appeal to a more sophisticated audience, but for me nothing beats the simplistic style of the original CYOAs. And with that I thought I’d talk about a couple of these fantastic books that I rediscovered with my son over the past couple of months. I wouldn’t call this a “Top List” but these were some of my favorites growing up so I was really happy I was able to share them again.
Of course, I’m going to start with my all time favorite. This is the one I checked out from the school library so many times that I should have gotten my head examined. After all, there were only 21 possible endings in this tale of world far beneath the surface of the planet, filled with hypnotic giant birds, warring ape people, and surprisingly hot “school teacher”esque lost professors. I mean maybe that was the reason I read this book so often as a kid. Although the below illustration is harmless enough, I remember thinking in 3rd grade that there was something somewhat naughty about sitting in a hot tub with a pretty lady while ape men served us heaping helpings of fruits and dates. In fact, part of my quest with the book was to figure out how I could get to this page naturally through the course of my choices just so I could see the picture again.
In any case, the book has some incredibly specific backstory included with it explaining how there could be an underground world without it being so hot given it was closer to the Earth’s core which I also always thought was fascinating. Sure it’s a bunch of scientific mumbo jumbo about the Earth’s core actually being a dwarf sized black hole that sucked in all the matter and heat from our mantle and thus our Earth is actually for the most part hollow, but I still don’t care. The fact that the author built up such elaborate rules and laws for this hollow Earth’s existence and in that if you understood them you could actually make better choices that wouldn’t end in your untimely demise is worth some kudos. I always felt that because I took the time to read the backstory I was better prepared for this adventure unlike some others that just threw you into the deep end from the start.
Yep, I really love this book. In fact, once Jakob started getting into this series, I specifically went searching for it on eBay so we could finally own it outright.
War with the Evil Power Master
In my opinion one of the more famous CYOA books out there, War with the Evil Power Master is a horse this franchise comes back to often reprinting it every chance they get and with good reason. Although the sci-fi tale of an intergalactic police force racing to stop the nefarious Power Master from destroying the planetary system of Lacoonia is pretty standard when it comes to stories of this type, it’s pitch perfect for CYOA outing. With spaceships, martian sidekicks, menacing robots, and a wide variety of choices to make, it’s definitely the kind of story that any kid could sink their teeth into in this post Star Wars world.
There is certainly a lot of running around in this book and although some may decry it as boiling down all the choices as to whether to stay where you are or leave, that’s pretty much a lot of CYOA books, and at least this one doesn’t hide what it is.
Nothing used to burn my britches more as a kid when I was reading one of these than having to wait 4 or 5 pages worth of exposition before I actually got to a choice I could make. Power Master excels on not mincing too many words and dumping you into the battle against the “Negative Life Force” which can shape-shift into any form (although I always pictured him as Ming the Merciless…mainly because of the cover).
The coolest thing about this particular book is you can actually get it on a t shirt at Out of Print clothing. I have thought about it often, but have yet to pull the trigger. If I could get it for Jakob in a kids size I would. Here’s the link though in case any of you are interested.
Third Planet from Altair
Another classic from the sci fi genre, Third Planet tells the story of a mysterious message from the stars being intercepted without any clear way of deciphering it. So Earth sends you on a mission to Altair to discover its meaning aboard the spaceship, the Aloha.
A personal favorite of my son now because of how early it dumps you into peril as shortly after launch the ship is attacked by an alien influence. He still talks about how “tricky” this book is to beat and it’s definitely one where you got to stay on your toes.
Plus the planet of Altair is incredibly expansive with a lot of choices for different ways to explore it which adds to its overall reread ability. From underground caves, to moons covered with seas, to ancient long abandoned cities, this book doesn’t shortchange you on the science fiction tropes either and overall makes for a really exciting adventure especially for kids.
Just watch out for microorganisms! I swear, in reading this book with Jakob, nearly half of all our demises were at the hands of not grotesque looking bug eyed monsters but because of bacteria that we had no immunity to. Like the mother of all staff infections, we fell on the planet more often than not similar to the way the Martians did at the end of War of the Worlds, victims of simple germs.
Ok, so not every one of these books was a winner, so I thought it was fair to share one that we found at the local library that I was sorta glad I never read as a kid despite seeing it on numerous occasions.
Superbike is about a kid that runs into this scientist that creates a “air magnet” that when attached to a bike removes all air resistance thus making a regular bike capable of reaching speeds of 50 miles per hour. I guess it can also make the bike fly, but as much as we tried we could never get to that story track. We mostly ended up reading a ton about the competitive cycling circuit of the late 80s/early 90s. As fascinating as it is to read about the world of cycling without a Lance Armstrong doping scandal to keep the audience even somewhat interested, Superbike fails miserably in a way that sometimes happens with these books: not enough escapism, too much realism. It’s a fantasy after all, things need to be exciting and different.
I will say though one of the endings we reached in the book had the scientist guy deciding to mass market the air magnet in hopes of cutting down pollution by inventing a faster greener technology than the car. Reading that with my son and then the very father/son talk afterwards about our role as stewards for this planet of ours was a nice little moment, so it definitely wasn’t a total loss.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, folks. There are more than 200 CYOA books out there, whether from the original series or the recent re-printings. Honestly, I probably could review one a week and still not complete the entire series in a year or two. Again, not every single one is going to be a home run, but finding new ones we haven’t read yet is definitely something that Jakob and I are going to be doing every chance we get. So, if you’ll excuse us, we’re about to start “Invaders from Within”. Hmmm…it looks like we just dug up some sort of metallic egg while hiking in the forest, Should we take it back to our house? Turn to Page 34. Or Should be alert the authorities? Turn to Page 68.
Decisions…decisions. *Puts thumb on page*