DIY storytelling

Susan Carpenter is a staff writer and "Throttle Jockey" columnist for The Times' Highway 1 section.

HALEY MILLER is 15, Montessori-educated and about to be thrown to the public-school wolves for the first time. She and her family have just moved from their solar-paneled, San Francisco Bay Area farmhouse to a suburban New Jersey Colonial surrounded by lush green lawn, and the scenario is ripe with possibilities. Will she be ridiculed or idolized when she meets "grade-A East coast hotties," designer-dressed mean girls, an allergy-prone nerd, an artsy troublemaker and a brown-nosing Pollyanna?

That's up to the reader.

Ordinarily, people who pick up a book have one choice -- to read it or not. Those who thumb through this "Choose Your Destiny Novel" get to decide whom Haley befriends, where she hangs out, what she wears and how she does in school.

The first in what is planned as an ongoing series, "What If ... Everyone Knew Your Name" is a clever idea, based on the popular "Choose Your Own Adventure" books of the '80s and '90s. In the earlier series, the books placed the reader at the center of the action, expected to choose among various plot paths that jumped ahead to a specific page, where the story resumed. Each book had dozens of possible outcomes, and most story lines could be devoured in minutes, enabling readers to page back to various forks in the road until their options were exhausted.

Few people over 35 have read the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series, but 184 titles were published between 1979 and 1998, and 250 million copies are in print worldwide. Written for 9- to 12-year-olds, many of the books' original readers, like the 30-year-old authors of "What If ... ," may relish putting their own creative spin on a favorite childhood pastime.

Liz Ruckdeschel and Sara James aren't the first to riff on the idea. A handful of other writers, all in the chick-lit vein, have adopted the "Choose Your Own Adventure" format. In 2003, two "Sex and the City"-style interactive series were launched: "Miss Adventure" by Simon & Schuster's Fireside imprint, and "Date With Destiny Adventures," by Quirk Books. In 2004, ReganBooks published "Whatever You Want," subtitling the novel about a 20-ish Bridget Jones-type character "A Pick Your Own Ending Escapade." Next year, HarperCollins will join the fray with "Pretty Little Mistakes."

The resurgence in interest isn't lost on "Choose Your Own Adventure" author and creator R.A. Montgomery. In May, he reissued eight titles through his own publishing house, Chooseco, and 28 more are on their way -- including his new title, "Forecast From Stonehenge," due early next year.

Part of the originals' charm is that the stories are so outrageous and fraught with peril at every turn. In "Abominable Snowman," the first of the reissues, the story begins with "you" and your friend Carlos searching for Yeti in the Himalayas. Depending on the path chosen, it ends with you finding Yeti, taking pictures of it, being killed by another Yeti, being eaten by a tiger, being rescued by a helicopter, getting kicked out of the country and 22 additional scenarios.

Choices often are forced upon the reader in the middle of an action sequence or conversation. The options are simply stated, with no hint of right, wrong or how future events may unfold. Whatever path the reader selects flows seamlessly from the previous one.

The same cannot be said for "What If ... " The story of the new girl in school and her trials and travails fitting in -- or not -- is classic, but its interactive component is sloppily executed. This isn't apparent early on, when Haley moves into her postcard-perfect house and falls for the boy next door, but the story begins to disintegrate shortly after the reader is asked to make the first plot choice.

Does Haley take the bus or hitch a ride from her dad? If she takes the bus, she meets some of her future classmates, including the secretive Irene Chen. It looks as if Haley has made her first friend, then Irene begins pressuring her to drop honors history and take art with her instead, which is Haley's second choice. If she switches to art, the girls end up quarreling, which brings the reader to choice No. 3: Should Haley apologize to Irene or let her new friend blow off steam?

If Haley apologizes, the story stays on track for a bit, then brings her into contact with a trio of emotionally abusive popular girls. But if she leaves Irene alone, the reader is propelled way too far forward in the story: The Irene situation hasn't been resolved, Haley hasn't even spent a full day in school, and suddenly we're weeks in, picking up with the line, "Haley was finally settling into life in New Jersey." Characters mentioned only fleetingly are referenced as though we know who they are.

Then, as if there's nothing else a girl in a new school in a different part of the country could possibly care about, Haley is confronted with the most vacuous of decisions: What shoes should she wear? Pick ballet flats and Haley is even more incongruously situated in a car driven by a co-worker from her mom's new job. We didn't even know that Haley's mom had a job and now this stranger is driving Haley and a girl she's met only once to a swim meet so that Haley can check out the glistening abs on a boy she doesn't even know, who then waves to her. In a bit of breathless, end-of-chapter editorializing before the next choice, it's even implied that he has feelings for Haley.


There's a reason "Choose Your Own Adventure" books are classics. "What If ... Everyone Knew Your Name" doesn't even come close. *

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