Neil Patrick Harris And The Secret Sauce Of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’

Neil Patrick Harris, delight and wonder in human form, is publishing an autobiography. It’s called Choose Your Own Autobiography and is modeled after the beloved interactive children’s series, Choose Your Own Adventure. Harris, it turns out, was a diehard fan of the classic gamebooks as a kid. I know what you’re thinking: yet another thing we all have in common with Neil Patrick Harris.

First introduced in 1979, the CYOA books sold over 250 million copies worldwide and were translated into 38 languages, and that was just in the first twenty years of publication. It is the fourth best-selling children’s series of all time. CYOA went out of print for a decade, but the creator, R. A. Montgomery, formed Chooseco in order to bring the books back to print; since 2005, 10 million CYOA books have been sold. To find out more about the series — its origin story, what NPH had to say about his love of the books, how the adventures work, just how many plot twists end in the reader’s bloody, untimely death — I called up Melissa Bounty, associate publisher, who has been with CYOA since the relaunch.

What did Neil Patrick Harris say when he approached you about his autobiography idea?

He was inspired by the series. We did speak with him early on to make sure what the boundaries were in how he was using the brand. We reviewed the book. But it’s not collaborative; we haven’t officially signed off on it in any way. But he gave us a shoutout at the beginning to thank us for the inspiration. He said that he was a big fan growing up, he paid attention to the series for a long time, and it was how he wanted to frame his autobiography.

Do you get requests like this a lot?

Oh, yes! And they’re all over the place. We did a custom book for a man who wanted to propose to a woman. We get the whole gamut from fans. Obviously this was a great one. Harris sometimes goes into territory that we wouldn’t go into with our series, but we love his achievements, his style, his sense of humor, everything he represents. It’s fun to imagine a CYOA fan could grow up to be Neil Patrick Harris! We’ve also had requests from Jeff Kinney, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid author. He’s a fan who reached out to us. Matt Senreich and Seth Green, the creators of Robot Chicken, did too. And we get regular, everyday people who reach out to us with cute stories about what they remember. We get an email a day from an app developer who asks, “Have you ever thought about putting CYOA on a mobile phone?” I seriously get that email every single day.

What do you say to them?

We’re a pretty small, grassroots, Vermont-style company. And we’re owned by the original founder and original authors, a husband and wife duo, R. A. Montgomery and Shannon Gilligan. Montgomery was the series founder; he had the original publishing contract for the series, then his business partner and wife was an original series author.

What was the initial reaction to the series back in the 1970s?

I think that there was a little bit of reluctance and resistance at first, because the books were very innovative. There were a couple interactives out there, but none were a children’s series. This was the first children’s interactive gamebook series that had widespread success. And I think the success was that Bantam, the original publisher, seeded thousands of the original books into public libraries for free, and kids started diving into them. Then it took off. It took about a year or two for the series to really catch on.

Where did Montgomery get the idea for a series like this?

His background had been in role playing, design and interactive design. He’d worked with the Peace Corps doing these role playing scenarios when you’d act out what’s happening in different countries to see what happens next. The sort of mission behind CYOA was to give children an experience where they were faced with these very real-life scenarios: they’re a doctor in the Amazon rainforest looking for a cure for a disease, they’re a mountain climber in a dire situation. They weren’t limited by being a child, and they were faced with an immediate scenario. And the writers introduced this idea of the second person: you are the main character, you are the star of the story. And those, I think, are the two most striking features that appeal to kids. They’re given the authority of being the narrator, and then they get this active environment with critical situations that feel important and realistic, and that was so different from what was out there.

Did you get any negative reactions from parents or teachers about how often you could die in the books? Because there are so many paths that lead to untimely death!

We’ve gotten it the same amount the whole time. There’s always someone out there who finds that startling. But most people deal with it with a sense of humor. And there’s definitely a number of kids who are looking for the gold at the end of the story, and some are looking for the goriest explosion scene in the book.

NOT EVEN THE VULTURES. CREDIT: Choose Your Own Adventure
NOT EVEN THE VULTURES. CREDIT: Choose Your Own Adventure

It reminds me a little of “Oregon Trail.” I died of dysentery hundreds of times, but that never really disturbed me or seemed strange, for some reason.

I think the video game influence has made death within narration more acceptable at a younger age.

What about this idea of giving up authorship, letting the kids be in charge of where the narrative could go? I could see a writer wanting to be totally in control of how the book turns out, which of course your writers don’t get to be.

I work with the authors directly on new books that we’re doing, and I’ve never had an author say to me, “This is the right way, this is the path, everything else is superfluous.” It’s really interesting to work with writers on these books. They all have a different process. A lot of young writers ask what program we use to make these. And the answer to that is, people are all different. We have one writer who puts notecards all over the wall and keeps rearranging them. Some writers just start writing and their mind works this way, it just starts branching immediately.

The first choice that you can choose is really important, when we’re developing the book. It has to be meaningful. If the first choice is blue door or red door, that’s not going to be as compelling. The first choice of The Abominable Snowman, number one in the series, is, “You are a young mountain climber, you climb with a partner, Carlos, and he’s gone ahead of you to Nepal and you’ve lost touch with him. A group is scheduled to meet with you to help you. You have to decide if you’re going ahead to look for Carlos because you’re worried or wait for the group to help you get your bearings” Your strategy is either “bulk up now” or “risk it and fight for your friend.” And I think kids recognize the weight of those two different decisions right away.

CREDIT: Choose Your Own Adventure
CREDIT: Choose Your Own Adventure

Are there any guidelines for what the choices have to be, or how many there are? Do you have some “maximum number of possible death outcomes” rule?

There’s a really lovely graphic designer, Samizdat, and he’s done these graphic analyses of CYOA that are animated. You see the complexity of different books, the good versus bad endings of different books. And we were so amazed by it. The writers were like, “I had no idea I was so depressing! Look at all these death endings in my book!” So it’s not planned. We don’t tell writers how many death endings to include. The classics that most people remember typically have around 25 endings in a book, but it can be as few as 12 or 15. Some of the original ones, the very complex, have more than 35 endings.

What is it like to have a whole team of writers instead of just one or two authors running everything?

Something I like about what Montgomery has done is, in the ’70s and ’80s, when he did this contract with Bantam and started publishing these books, a lot of them were doing series with just one named author and a lot of books were ghostwritten. But CYOA always celebrated this chorus of writers, each doing their own thing. We’ve just had a really interesting, different group. We just brought back this fall a horror series and we have two first-time writers. There are probably somewhere near 40 writers working on the series now.

I remember reading The Baby-Sitters Club as a kid and then finding out that Ann M. Martin didn’t write them all, and I was so crushed by that! But it seems like CYOA is liberated to do that in a way these other series aren’t, because half of the CYOA authorship belongs to the reader anyway.

The books were more unique, I think, than some series. I read The Baby-Sitters Club, and I remember reading on the author page, “Ann M. Martin acknowledges so-and-so.” And they had that very standard universe, where Kristy is the bossy one and it’s the same origin story every time. CYOA has rules, for sure. We have certain things that we adhere to from a gamebook perspective, to maintain a consistent universe. If you walked into a room in the upstairs of the house, you can’t later find out that the house has no upstairs. But I think the group of writers that we work with have all found a bit of an individual voice in the series. The data is really fun to look at, if you strip away all the narrative. There’s different styles of writing, too. And I think that’s what makes Neil Patrick Harris and others feel like it’s something they can join.

An autobiography is such a surprising place to use this format, as if there is more than one alternate way that his life could turn out, even though it’s already happened.

It really turns it on its head! Did you see the book trailer? It’s a great example of what an interactive piece looks like. I think that’s how it feels: this split-screen experience.

I’m curious about how a new generation that is so prone to FOMO deals with these books. Because I always would have this tinge of anxiety, that the choice I’d made wasn’t the most exciting or interesting one, and there was a better book happening in the book I was holding that I wasn’t reading.

We get a lot of social media mentions about this, and people call it “keeping your fingers in the page.” Everyone knows what that means: keeping your options open. That’s something we had to work on for the ebook. When we first brought them to ebook, kids were weirded out by it, because it felt big and infinite, and you had no anchor. So we added this little map so you knew where you were in the book. They needed to know they were in a 120 page book and could go from page 60 to 70 or 90 and go back to anywhere they wanted.

Anything else fans of CYOA would love to know about the series?

There’s a funny Tumblr devoted to all the “bad” endings in gamebooks.