From the Editor's Desk: On First Choices
When I work with a writer on a new Choose Your Own Adventure book, the first choice is a critical early step in the process. Without agreeing on a compelling, loaded first choice, the book doesn’t really exist. That first choice is the gateway into an interactive book. Without it, you’d only be telling one story. And if it’s not a great choice, readers will only want one of the stories, or may not want to read the book at all.
Usually this is a bit of a conundrum, especially for a first-time interactive writer, and they want examples. For many years I used the choice from The Abominable Snowman as an example and explained that the set-up is that YOU, a skilled young mountain-climber, are about to climb Mount Everest. You are set to meet with an expert who is going to advise you on your climb and your search for the yeti, the abominable snowman. But your climbing partner Carlos, who arrived before you did, has vanished. The first choice offered to the reader is to seek out Carlos or stick with your planned meeting with Runal, the expert. Both choices are exciting and both lead to interesting stories in the book.
When we first discussed creating Choose Your Own Adventure titles about historical spies, I knew we were going to have some unique challenges. Usually the main character, “you,” is anonymous so any reader can imagine themselves in the role. In our SPIES books, “you,” would be a real spy from history. The real spy had an identity: a gender, race, country of origin, a real historical era. To make an interactive book even more challenging, you, the spy, had only one true history, and it was a linear one. What made the series work was that so much of spies’ work is secretive and hidden, so we could fill in those gaps with a choice-driven adventure.
When writer Kyandreia Jones and I began the work of creating the first book in the SPIES series about James Armistead Lafayette, we had some deep, beautiful conversations about how to create an interactive story about James’ life. James was born an enslaved Black American in Virginia. Kyandreia made some astute observations about the ways being a spy and being an enslaved person had commonality. Both spies and enslaved people have a country and yet don’t have all the protections of that country’s laws. Both spies and enslaved people live double lives, and deal with lies and truth, and other contradictions that get to the core of identity.
Kyandreia respected interactive writing and the missions of the Choose Your Own Adventure series so deeply that I knew her book was going to be special and important. This didn’t make it any easier to write! After months of wrestling with different scenarios, she finally presented me with her first choice. It was plucked from a real historical event in James’ life, a pivotal one: James met the French Marquis de Lafayette when he arrived in the United States to help George Washington fight the American Revolution. Lafayette was so impressed with James, who was brave and intelligent, that Lafayette helped James escape slavery into freedom, and also gave James his last name to use going forward.
Choose Your Own Adventure, at its best, offers readers a sense of empowerment and autonomy by making big choices. So Kyandreia dreamed up a big choice for James: while the real-life James accepted freedom and joined Lafayette in fighting, Kyandreia wanted to offer the reader even more expansive freedom. What if James had the choice to fight with Lafayette and George Washington OR accept his freedom, no strings attached? What kind of adventures would James experience next, in either choice?
To be honest, this first choice blew my mind. It was everything I want in a first choice of a CYOA book. Both choices were rich and interesting. It was true to the series and also to the story we were trying to tell of a historical Black American. Readers would experience the story of James Armistead Lafayette through this choice, and this book. And thus, a new chapter of CYOA books, celebrating historical spies, began.
As I think about Black History month in the United States this year, I thought about how wonderful it has been to work with Kyandreia on three Choose Your Own Adventure titles starring YOU as a Black American character. Kyandreia has brought something amazing to the world in her books, and she always causes her readers—and her editor—to ask smart, challenging questions about themselves and the story in front of them. I hope you will check out her books and feel inspired, and empowered, by such a talented writer.