The best 10 Choose Your Own Adventures books. Limited to the CYOA branded books, just to keep this list manageable. From tenth place to first place.
#3 By Balloon to the Sahara — Early, classic, and random. In the first few books, they hadn’t quite gotten the hang of how CYOAs worked, so some choices were utterly random and inconsistent. Plus, they put too many genres into one story. Space aliens, pirates, mysteries… why read any other book, ever again? It also has clever use of unusual endings, like The *burp* End when you get eaten. I hope someone carves that on my tombstone.
#16 Survival at Sea — Perhaps not the greatest story ever, but it has the neat feature of a map that you can consult when making choices. So it’s no longer totally random which way to go–you can use eight-year-old map-reading skills to increase your chances of survival. I always wondered why Dr. Vivaldi left navigation of this expensive ship to a kid, though. Oh, and there’s a really cool death scene where you drink salt water in a lifeboat and then you dehydrate and die.
#34 The Mystery of the Highland Crest — Good, well-written, consistent storyline. I liked the pair of twins–which in some storylines, you discover that one’s evil, and in others she kills you before you can figure it out.
#18 Underground Kingdom — Creepy and trippy. A black hole sun in the earth’s center which kept it cool enough to survive, and an inverted world surrounding it–like the inside of an eggshell. The map of the world reminded me of Oz. If you climb the mountains, you risk getting sucked into the black hole. And there’s monsters lurking in the trees with giant fangs. I had nightmares about this artwork. The premise is scientific nonsense, of course, but by the laws of eight-year-old science, it totally ruled.
#17 The Race Forever — Four stories in one. There’s two races, and you can choose your co-pilot in each one. So there’s four ways to go. I loved the idea of a race across Africa in which you could either take the safe long route or a risky shortcut. Isn’t that what so many things in life are about? I was peeved that of the four drivers, one has no winning conditions. If you pick her, you can’t win. That never seemed fair.
#20 Escape — Aw yeah. The future of the United States is a civil war, with three entities vying for control of the country. Where’s the rest of the world during this fight? Who cares? You’re trying to escape southern California (who wouldn’t?) for the safety of Denver (well, can’t win ’em all…) Good action, good adventure, and a spy who sometimes you catch and sometimes he catches you. The sequel is terrible, though; you discover that this spy is actually working for aliens. Dear CYOA: what.
#49 Danger at Anchor Mine — This is a surprisingly good story with a good variety of different angles on it. You can explore the mine itself, the people involved with it, the history of the place, or other storylines. And there’s one ending where you discover a dead canary in the mine and realize what it signifies for your future (hint: DOOM) that made me cry because it was so sad and beautiful at the same time. And then it gave me nightmares.
#159 Tattoo of Death — Okay, this wins points for completely being What The Hell. Premise: You are forcibly tattooed by gang members, marking you as theirs, leading to immense problems for you with other gangs and the law. There are 15 endings. 13 of them are TERRIBLE DEATH. One is neutral, and one is a vague win. Even more disturbing, several of the endings just trail off and say in large capital letters: CENSORED DUE TO VIOLENCE. I have no idea whether this was the author or the company trying something new, but it’s the only book that shies away from telling you that you got killed. Perhaps it’s an attempt to teach kids that Gangs Are Bad and there are no winning choices once you’re in. I don’t know. The rest of this review is CENSORED DUE TO VIOLENCE. Maybe that’s what I should have tattooed on myself.
#32 Treasure Diver — I learned a ton about scuba diving from this one. Solid story, based on real science. You can get the bends, or rapture of the deep. Just a good, enjoyable story.
#45 You are a Shark — Best CYOA ever. You accidentally defile an ancient temple by stepping inside it. You collapse and almost die, but the monk meditating here tells you that you can redeem yourself by working through the cycle of life. So you experience the lives of different animals, from elephants to gorillas to zebras to mosquitos. Well-researched and a great read.
Honorable Mentions: #12 Inside UFO 54-40 for the picture of your legs splitting off your body and running away from you, #11 Mystery of the Maya for including human sacrifice in a children’s book, and #150 Who Are You? for a great concept (waking up with amnesia, and you’re the protagonist!). Another honorable mention for Ellen Kushner, who wrote 5 good CYOA books–and while none are in my top 10, all five are probably in my top 30 somewhere. All her books come later in the series, and most of them I read as an adult–which means I don’t have the nostalgia that I do about the ones I remember from childhood.
Which ones were your favorites?