I don’t know when it happened (could have been as early as second grade, could have been as late as fourth grade) and I don’t know where it happened (presumably one of the many grade schools in southern Ohio I attended before my family finally settled in Columbus). All I remember is that it happened. On one unremarkable school day, my teacher announced out of the blue that she had been given two very special books, books which were not read but lived, books which contained choices the reader could make, choices that would determine the outcome of the story. She then further announced that she was going to lend these very special books to the two best readers in class. The first of these readers was a fellow named Ben. The second was me. And so the teacher handed me a book called Deadwood City from the Choose Your Own Adventure series, a series which at that time was just starting and had only a handful of titles but which would continue throughout my entire public school career and ultimately boast hundreds of titles.
Now Deadwood City was the eighth of these books (which is something I just discovered; I had always thought that the teacher had the first and the second book in the series and that she had given the first to Ben and the second to me, but apparently that was not the case). And to be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled with it at first. It was clear from both the title (a fairly typical western-esque phrase) and the cover art (which featured a shootout in front of a saloon, a stagecoach, rocky mountains, a man on horseback, and the huge close-up of a some bandit who looked suspiciously like the evil preacher from Poltergeist 2) that it was a cowboy story, and I had never been a big fan of cowboy stories. I was much more interested in the title she had given Ben (which I think was The Cave Of Time and which seemed to involved time travel and sword-and-sorcery elements, things that were far more attractive to me then). I was, however, interested in the format; I may not have liked cowboy stories, but I definitely liked the ideas of 1) having an adventure and 2) choosing my own adventure. And so, bolstered by the promise that I would be able to read The Cave Of Time after Ben had returned it a week later, I took Deadwood City home and dove into it.
Now the Choose Your Own Adventure system was fairly simple. The books were written in second person (using the you and you’re and your pronouns for the protagonist). They were comprised of little increments that were usually about a page long. And each increment ended with a choice between one or more courses of action; for example, in Deadwood City, a gunman might draw down on you in one increment, and you would be asked, “Do you want to draw your gun or do you want to flee?” Each choice was took the reader to a different page (i.e., “If you draw your gun, go to page 4. If you flee, go to page 27”), which would contain another increment and another choice or an ending, which could be positive (“You win!”) or negative (“You die”; and though the books were not really graphic, death was indeed an option). These increments were not sequential; they were instead scattered randomly throughout the book. The reader, then, started on page one as with any average book but then flipped back and forth, going to whatever page and increment the choices instructed. And I picked up this system fairly quickly without any help. The only problem I had was that I didn’t realize I needed to go back to page one after completing my first adventure. Being used to simply turning to the next page when a story was finished, I turned to the next page when my first Choose Your Own Adventure story in Deadwood City was finished and with great confusion found myself in the middle of another adventure.
Now I never did get to read The Cave Of Time; while I dutifully returned my Choose Your Own Adventure after spending most of a weekend with it, Ben did not return his and would never return it (I think, in fact, that he not only lost it, which was bad enough, but that he also lost it without ever reading it, which was much worse). I did, however, read many other Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’m not certain today about the titles of most of those books, but I distinctly remember exploring haunted houses and scuba diving (the scuba diving one, in fact, had a scene I’ve never forgotten, a scene in which one diver purposefully scared another so that she would breathe faster and thus decompress faster). I also went on to read other, similar books; in the summer after fifth grade, I discovered at the library a series of books that used a system very much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books but that actually had a set of combat rules very much like Dungeons And Dragons, and I played through at least two if not three of those (the titles and series of these books are, alas, long forgotten). Even today, though I’ve far outgrown the Choose Your Own Adventure books, I’m remain fascinated by them and appreciative of all the enjoyment they gave me during those grade and middle school days; I will today regard any book with the phrase Choose Your Own Adventure on the cover as being something exciting and special, just as I did back then; I am, in fact, still choosing after all these years.