To Be or Not to Be: An Interactive Approach to Classic Literature

If you grew up in the eighties or nineties, then you very likely saw or even read at least one of the books from the popular kids’ series Choose Your Own Adventure. Readers got to make decisions, both seemingly significant and seemingly insignificant, that led to various endings. Occasionally you might have ended up with a particularly gruesome death as you flipped back through decisions in an attempt to complete as many storylines as possible. Choose-your-own books, choose-your-path books, click-your-own books, and other interactive stories like these are all part of a genre called gamebooks.

Choose-your-own stories are making a big comeback, and this time they’re targeted at adult audiences. One big example of this is Netflix’s interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which swept the internet like a storm in December. (If you’re interested in Bandersnatch and video games, check out Scott MacDonald’s post on the visual choose-your-own story.) But this time, interactive books are coming back for adult readers.

Gamebooks are about being able to play around in a familiar world, make mistakes, and try again. Interactive books for adults do just that, but this time, the majority of choose-your-path books are focusing on classic and well-known stories, rather than the nostalgic stereotypes found in the kids’ series. Interactive books use the stories of classics––Austen, Shakespeare, historical romance––to give adult readers a chance to toy with the literary worlds they have known and loved.

Books like Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure and To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure show rich worlds that have already existed for over a hundred years––with edits, of course. These books use plot arcs specific to the existing world or author to give readers choices.

In My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel, the historical romantic heroine gets sent across the eighteenth-century highlands and into the relationship and story she and the reader want. These paths are risqué and charming, and certainly wouldn’t be as much fun for the reader without background knowledge of romance stereotypes. The tropes make the scandal and adventure all the more interesting and satirical for adult readers. And in the contemporary choose-your-own format, readers can have the option to end their romance with an LGBTQ pairing or a gothic haunted castle.

As interactive books for adult readers emerge on the market, they make an interesting study. While the choose-your-own-path stories appeal to adult readers who remember the legendary Choose Your Own Adventure series, these books tend to resell the classics for adults who want to play around with the old tropes and stories.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Interactive Audiobooks

I just discovered that there are choose-your-own-adventure interactive audiobooks! I’m not sure why I am just finding this out. I grew up in the eighties and nineties, and Choose Your Own Adventure books were as much a staple of my youth as big ratty bangs, too much blue eyeshadow, and oversize neon sweatshirts with shoulder pads.

You may be wondering why you should care about interactive audiobooks styled like the iconic children’s books. In truth, I accidentally stumbled upon this new (to me) trend in an email from Publishing Perspectives announcing a partnership between Earplay and Capstone. They plan to create a series of choose-your-own-adventure middle-grade interactive audiobooks. Capstone is an educational publisher, and a partnership like this is an exciting discovery if you have a couple of munchkins to entertain like I do. I am eager to share a beloved piece of my childhood with my kids, but really, deep down, these middle-grade titles won’t satisfy my desire to have a choose-your-own-adventure audio experience of my own. So I did a little research about interactive audiobooks, and I was not disappointed! There’s a wide range of available genres for interactive audiobooks, including family, drama, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

With the increasing popularity of smart-home virtual assistants, Amazon Echo and Google Home are finding their way into nearly every home (my house has four). These devices, which already provide us with music, games, and entertainment, are now also the platforms that provide us with interactive audiobooks. But what if you refuse to purchase one of these corporate spies? I completely understand, but unfortunately, your selection becomes severely limited. You can download the Earplay app to your Android or Apple smartphone; Earplay is currently the only provider I could find that offers access outside of Amazon Echo and Google Home, but it does have family-friendly and adult-targeted content. Hopefully, we will have a wider selection of content providers as this trend catches on.

There are already some big media and entertainment names jumping into this new market, like Sony Pictures, Pottermore Publishing & Audible, Disney, the BBC, and NBCUniversal, the latter of which previously partnered with Earplay to produce an interactive audiobook prequel to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and an interactive narrative based on Westworld. Some of these audiobooks are free, but others require in-app purchases or payment by chapter.

Over the last few years, Netflix has created several choose-your-own-adventure-inspired (or “interactive”) shows, the most recent of which is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a full-length movie aimed at an adult audience. The viewer uses a remote control to select the choices the character in question will make. However, with interactive audiobooks, you are the character you’re calling the shots for: you are the adventurer, the spy, the hero, who—assuming you make the right choices—will get to save the day.

Read Me an App

Picture books are the first touchstone for children’s reading—or were, before the shining allure of digital media began to capture developing eyes and minds. Children have the advantage of a fresh mental slate in modern media, where the conventions of touch screens and interactions are base skills. Watching any child navigate an iPad, Kindle, Nook, or gaming console will provide a view of the rapidly expanding world of interaction and sophistication future generations will master and use for the foundation of their own developments. Why, then, does the print market for children’s publishing continue with gusto in the digital age?

Digital reading has yet to deliver the apocalyptic end of print media as we know it, but instead occupies a new middle ground, since no single product or design has yet to dethrone the tactile joy or nostalgic scent of pulp, ink, and glue. Children’s publishing is not immune to the (supposedly) impending shift to an all-digital future, but the operativity of picture books and shared learning through storytime is an undeniable building block for literacy with far more moving parts than the shift from print to digital. When children and adults gather for an interactive reading of a picture book, the opportunity for co-constructive storytime opens the experience of critical thought, learning validation, and conceptual understanding to the early readers gathered in the circle. According to Reading Picture Books to Children by Megan Dowd Lambert, this is an opportunity for both parties to engage in “extended, cognitively challenging conversation during the reading of a book.” It’s a free-flowing narrative experience that makes space for children to develop ideas about the structure and reasoning behind the narrative and art of books. Numerous digital alternatives and creative solutions to make print storytime obsolete exist, and so far display an incredible breadth of opportunities for reading within the unexplored nebulas of digital design potential. A child can touch an image and see the spelling for a tree or cow, or zoom in to see the inner workings of an anthill, but can they “pat the bunny”? Not yet.

“Children are still going to have a bookshelf,” says Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in an article in Publisher’s Weekly. HarperCollins is far from ignoring the elephant in the room, however. As Katz admits, “They’ll have shelves with many other things, too.”

The functional truth lies within the supremacy of an open experience with engaging discussion for kids to make their own connections with authoritative guidance; however glitzy and immersive digital reading experiences like Mrs. Spider’s Tea Party are, the ability for children to gather and learn together has yet to operate as easily and effectively as with the punched-out trim of The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar with the support and questions of a leading reader providing access to further learning. Digital readers expand in many directions and serve as cutting-edge learning resources when experienced solo or in one-on-one sessions, but have yet to deliver anything close to co-constructive storytime.