Reading a book is usually a passive experience. The author dictates everything, from the description of the characters and their behavior to the sequence of events. But there is one kind of story that shifts the power dramatically, giving the reader an active role in the story they’re reading: A Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book.
CYOA books allow the reader to make decisions that affect the story by branching off towards multiple endings—e.g., if you want to go left, turn to page 19; if you want to go right, turn to page 120—as well as plenty of ways to die unceremoniously (although aimed at young readers in their original incarnation, some of these books get dark).
CYOA has become popular in modern adult fiction as well because of the inherent power of the reading experience. These books are self-consciously meta-fictional; acknowledging that they’re a physical object containing a story is part of the experience. And they shatter the Fourth Wall, addressing the reader directly and inviting their input. The CYOA experience has even been ported to visual media—Netflix has had great success with CYOA episodes of Black Mirror (“Bandersnatch”) and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—which has brought CYOA stories back into the mainstream. If you’re curious, here are the 15 best CYOA books to test drive.
1. Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar
While there are earlier examples of the general concept, the CYOA template was formalized by author Edward Packard in the late 1970s. Packard wrote some of the first examples of stories where the reader was given a choice. One of the rare examples of a pre-Packard CYOA novel, Cortázar’s Hopscotch is broken into 155 chapters. The author describes the last 99 chapters as “expendable,” and offers the reader two ways of reading the story: Either starting at the beginning and reading linearly through chapter 56 or by “hop-scotching” through all 155 chapters.
As a result, there are not multiple endings as with most CYOA books. Rather, there are multiple reading experiences. The story follows a man named Horacio Oliveira who constantly questions his thoughts, his actions, his reactions. He is fascinated by people who lack these limitations and seeks out his former lover, La Maga, who is free-spirited and living in Paris. When she vanishes, he returns home, his hold on sanity slipping away.
Reading the story like a CYOA book fills in many gaps in the “traditional” story, making those expendable chapters not expendable at all. It’s a beautiful and haunting reading experience, and it’s left to the reader whether the trade-off of narrative certainty for lush detail is worth it.
2. My Lady’s Choosing, by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
The CYOA genre tends toward sci-fi and adventure stories, often with an implied (or explicitly) male reader/main character. Curran and Zageris apply the form to the Romance Novel with incredible success. What makes this reader-guided story work so well is the authors’ understanding of Romance tropes and why they’re beloved and mocked in equal measure. This gives them the chance to subvert and play with those expectations—which they do with admirable humor and cleverness.
You role-play as a young woman in the Regency era who’s stuck as the “lady’s companion” to an elderly heiress. The lady’s young niece arrives and the adventure begins as she offers you a choice of romantic adventures, ranging from the traditional gruff-but-secretly-tender aristocrat to less routine scenarios, like riffs on Jane Eyre and even an Egyptian-themed affair with the niece herself.
The book is worth checking out if only for the genre subversions (enjoyable even if you’re not overly familiar with modern Romance novels), but it’s also witty and often hilarious without losing the charm, heart, and optimism at the center of all Romance stories.
3. If, by Nicholas Bourbaki
If is one of the most sophisticated takes on the CYOA format. You start as a young man who follows a girl into an underground room, and from there your choices shape the narrative. But Bourbaki (a pseudonym) doesn’t play fair. On the one hand, he provides a map of the story and specific instructions for moving through it, which seems to take away your agency—an odd decision in a CYOA book. On the other hand, the map lies, and there are other subtle tricks, including an area of the book you can only reach by outright cheating, subverting his own rules.
The story branches into several spectacularly distinct lines. In some, you die pretty quickly due to simple, run of the mill life choices. In others, you stumble onto a Da Vinci Code-like conspiracy hidden in math problems. Just as you notice some repetition in the path, your avatar in the story complains about repetition. When a side character calls you by name, it’s startling—that almost never happens in CYOA stories. When it’s later revealed to be a false identity, it’s not comforting. It just underscores the eerie sense that you’re not totally in control.
Most remarkably, the main character is actually a character. The novel is designed to be read in full—for you to go back multiple times and make different choices until you’ve seen everything. By the end you have a real sense of who this guy is, unlike other CYOA stories where the main character is kept as blank as possible.
4. Lost in Austen, by Emma Campbell Webster
Webster combines a deep knowledge (and affection) of Jane Austen’s novels with a scoring system to make this one of the most interactive CYOA reading experiences. You are Elizabeth Bennet, the smart and passionate heroine of Pride and Prejudice, and your goal is to marry, and marry well. Your choices will take you through the original story—but also cross over into the other novels of the Austenverse, giving Lizzie choices she didn’t have before. The illusion of being able to move freely through different stories and characters is well done and opens up a wealth of possibilities for the format.
Along the way, your decisions gain points in different categories (Accomplishments, Intelligence, Fortune, etc.) which make the whole experience more like a game but also explicitly rank the outcomes of your choices. Where most CYOA books offer judgment only in your death, Lost in Austen offers a range of outcomes based on your final score, which is fascinating. You can ignore this aspect and enjoy Elizabeth’s romp through Austen’s stories if you want, and even attempt to steer her away from Mr. Darcy toward someone less suitable but possibly more interesting.
5. To Be or Not To Be, by Ryan North
North’s brilliant re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a perfect marriage of material and format. Hamlet, after all, is the dithering prince of Denmark. He spends much of his time in the play trying to decide what choices to make and alarming everyone with his behavior—which sounds very much like someone involved in a CYOA story.
The effect is surprisingly expansive, giving the reader the opportunity to either follow the play’s plot closely or to explore other scenarios. Even better, making the right choices can push you out of Hamlet into other Shakespeare plays, or allow you to “play” as other characters, creating a sort of Shakespearean shared universe. The book is worth reading for the reinvention of a story, but it’s also a solid example of a CYOA book, with more than one hundred possible endings.
6. MAZE, by Christopher Manson
When originally published, this beautiful puzzle book offered a prize to whoever could solve the riddle—but first you had to figure out what the riddle was. MAZE is divided into 45 rooms and you, the reader, are part of a group that enters the maze. Each room is illustrated in a delightfully macabre style by Manson, with doors marked by numbers indicating which rooms you can enter from your current place. The text and the illustrations contain hints and clues about the riddle and the correct path, and your challenge is to find the shortest path from Room 1 to Room 45 and back again, piece together the riddle, and then provide the answer. In the grand tradition of CYOA stories, there is indeed a room where you will most certainly die.
It was solved long ago, but it remains a surprisingly immersive experience. The illustrations convey an eerie sense of just-missed movement, as if someone had been there just before you, re-arranging things and obscuring vital clues. The text is sparse but written in an arched, world-weary tone that entertains even as it tries to throw you off the solution’s scent. The visuals and text combine to give you the sense that you’re literally matching wits with the unnamed guide, trying to tease the truth out of someone who is obviously willing to lie to you.
7. What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, by Margaret Killjoy
Killjoy’s politically-charged and somewhat violent take on a steampunk CYOA eschews the random-adventure format of many CYOAs in favor of a more traditional plot that just so happens to change based on your decisions. Most of those decisions will lead to your untimely death, which is a lot more fun than it sounds. While CYOA books traditionally have just a small number of paths that lead to death, Killjoy understands that the more dangerous your choices are, the more exciting they are.
What’s also unusual about What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower is the fact that you read as an actual character instead of a more anonymous “you.” Gregory is a cynical intellectual with a taste for the hard stuff. His journey into the underground world of gnomes is tinged with social and economic theory, but it’s used to build the world instead of weighing it down with lectures. The flying machines and other steampunk details create a fictional universe you’ll want to explore, and the uniquely focused story is a balance between freedom of choice and authorial control.
8. The Most Boring Book Ever Written, by Daniel Pitts
The CYOA template is ripe for subversion and post-modern re-invention, but few authors have taken up the challenge. Pitts does something here that is remarkable, telling a story that is, on the surface, incredibly mundane. The choices you’re presented with seem dull and meaningless, and the branching narrative seems as tedious as, well, real life. For example, you will get caught in a lengthy cycle purchasing a sandwich, and at some point you will wonder what the point is.
Appreciating Pitts’ novel requires a bit more work. There are hints that more is going on than a painfully accurate reproduction of a boring suburban life, but there are no splashy announcements, big speeches, or plot twists. The frequent tangents examining ingredients force you to ponder the nature of our modern existence, and the many subtle hints that something terrible—perhaps several terrible things— happened in the background will make a second or third read fruitful. This is a surprisingly dark book if you slow down and pay attention, and one of the few that uses the CYOA technique for more than structural novelty.
9. Pretty Little Mistakes, by Heather McElhatton
One of several recent books that use the CYOA format to explore not just a sprawling adventure but an entire life, Pretty Little Mistakes is ambitious and very, very much for adults. Your choices begin as a teenager and move you through a whole lifetime that includes some very unsavory and X-rated possibilities. McElhatton doesn’t just gesture at mature situations, however; she infuses them with wonderful detail and interesting characters. Perhaps the greatest triumph of this book is that you’re often left wanting to linger in certain paths a little longer. Several of these narrative branches, like the time you spend living with a transvestite in London, are good enough to be entire standalone novels.
McElhatton smartly avoids using the darker pathways of the story for shock value. Instead, the book becomes a contemplation of life choices and unintended consequences. Some of the possible outcomes for “your” life are outlandish (McElhatton even goes beyond the traditional “You have died” death endings and actually takes you to the afterlife), but with 150 possible endings, this is a richly mature adventure. If you’ve ever read a book where the plot took a turn you didn’t enjoy or appreciate, Pretty Little Mistakes is one where you can correct the problem and choose a different path.
10. The Cave of Time, by Edward Packard
The first book Packard published under the official CYOA brand is also one of the best examples of the original genre. The unnamed protagonist—the second-person narration makes it clear that it’s you—stumbles into a cave and gets lost. Your first choice is a seemingly simple one: Try to find your way home, or settle in for the night? Whatever your choice, you quickly realize why the book is called The Cave of Time.
It’s aimed at young readers, of course, but it’s surprisingly sophisticated. Using time travel as a literary device works very well in a CYOA story, and your decisions will see you ping-pong across time, having a series of mini-adventures instead of one coherent narrative. That makes it relatively unusual in the CYOA genre—most are single adventures marked by several possible “branches” leading to a multitude of endings. But that makes The Cave of Time remarkable: It uses the innovative structure of constant choice to keep surprising the reader.
The lack of a single narrative doesn’t mean there’s no center to the story—you’re urged to find your way back to your own time. Eventually, you’ll notice that choices that take you further away from home usually end badly. That unspoken direction is fascinating, implying a natural order to the story that isn’t rigidly enforced, like a literary gravity pulling you in the “right” direction.
11. Project UFO, by R.A. Montgomery
The classic CYOA books of the 1970s and 1980s are explicitly aimed at young readers, but authors Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery frequently packed sophisticated ideas into their narratives. On the surface, Project UFO is a goofy story of a kid who hears an alien named Freedo on his head. The voice puts your feet on the path to a really strange intergalactic adventure involving metal bees, men who turn into horrifying blobs, and magic potions.
There’s a crucial choice in the early going where you can either ignore the voice or do as it says. Most people will do what it says because that’s clearly the path to adventure. If you choose not to, the story demonstrates pretty clearly that you’re insane, you’re at an institution, and because you resisted the voice in your head you might be on the path to recovery.
This is subversive stuff for a CYOA book for kids, opening up all sorts of questions about mental health and the nature of reality and our perception of it. Reading the story once choosing to follow the voice’s instructions and then again choosing not to completely re-frames the rather trippy events of the first path, making this a must-read for fans of the form.
12. Trial of the Clone, by Zach Weinersmith
The game-like aspects of CYOA literature are usually relegated to the choices you get at the end of each section or chapter. This sometimes leaves CYOA books feeling a bit constrained; they offer the reader interactivity and then tightly control their options. Trial of the Clone more openly embraces the game-like nature of these stories by explicitly including aspects of role-playing games (RPGs) in the form of ability categories that can be improved throughout the story. As your numbers climb, so do your abilities, which impacts the path of the story.
The main character is a clone living in a dystopian future, dumped into a clone orphanage and forgotten. Deciding that you’re somehow destined for greatness, you set out to seek adventure. What follows is a dizzying array of pop-culture references, sci-fi set pieces, and surprisingly thoughtful riffs on history, technology, and philosophy. There are monsters, space battles, and sword-wielding monkeys, and the whole narrative is handled with appropriate humor.
You can read the story without dealing with the RPG elements if you wish, but it’s the stats and abilities that really bring this book to life. They make your character unique every time, leading to variations in the story and the outcomes.
13. Life’s Lottery, by Kim Newman
The adult-oriented, post-modernist CYOA novels that track an entire lifetime still echo at least one aspect of the old-school model: They tend toward wild adventure. Newman goes the other way. The life you choose for Keith Marion, born in 1959 and presented with his first real choice some years later, might be better or worse depending on your decisions—but it is stubbornly normal. Your choices have an impact on Marion’s life and the person he becomes, but there’s also the repeated phrase “And so on” that ends many of the sections. Echoing Kurt Vonnegut, that phrase underscores the theme of the story, which is that there is no ultimate choice that changes everything. Life’s Lottery is a series of choices, all the way up until the end.
Also unlike most CYOA stories, the end here—that is, death—is inevitable. Where some CYOA stories imply that the right decisions lead to a sort of literary immortality, Keith Marion’s story only has one ending, although it comes in different versions. It’s the same ending all our paths are leading to, and Newman’s contemplation of it is powerful.
14. You Are a Cat!, by Sherwin Tija
Artist and poet Tija offers up something truly unique: A CYOA graphic novel in which you are Holden Catfield, resident pet cat to a seemingly normal family. That might sound twee, but Tija takes the story in several rather dark and unexpected directions; a love of cats is helpful but not required to enjoy this surprisingly complex narrative.
The illustrations complement the story perfectly, adding just enough visual elements to help your imagination. But what really makes this book special is what Tija doesn’t do—he doesn’t anthropomorphize. Holden Catfield is not revealed to be a super-intelligent cat or an alien in disguise. He doesn’t have sci-fi adventures and he’s not revealed to be anything other than a cat. Tija plays it straight—you are choosing a path for a cat, who goes on to have catly adventures involving squirrels and frequent naps. The real story lies in the stuff Holden observes about his human caretakers and others he encounters. Tija skillfully weaves his stories in those details, and the result is truly unique each time through.
15. Heart of Ice, by Dave Morris
Morris’ CYOA is a pure science fiction romp set on a future Earth where climate change and economic inequality have seemingly doomed mankind. The main character stumbles onto information about something that might be able to undo the damage and set everything right. What ensues is a smart, fast-paced tale of apocalyptic sci-fi.
This is another CYOA book that incorporates role-playing game (RPG) attributes, but Morris goes beyond simply tracking points or affecting your possible choices. You can actually read as different characters, each with their own unique set of skills. There are also inventory management and budgetary concerns to manage, all of which affect your progress and possible pathways through the story. It’s as much a game as a book and can’t really be read without playing along. The result is a truly immersive experience that has more “re-read” value than most CYOA books because you can literally be a different person each time.
Most importantly, the choices you’re faced with are never blind. Many CYOA books present the reader with choices lacking any context as to their impact on the narrative, but in Heart of Ice, Morris manages to give you enough data to guess how each decision will affect you. This doesn’t make those choices obvious, but it’s more sophisticated than turning to page 30 only to discover you’ve been randomly killed.