Ranking Choose Your Adventure Book Covers of the 20th Century


Kristian Wilson Colyard grew up weird in a one-caution-light town in the Appalachian foothills. She now lives in an old textile city with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.

2024 marks the 45th anniversary of the Choose Your Own Adventure series’ inception. We’re celebrating here by ranking the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book covers of the 20th century and presenting you with the best of the best. If you’re due for a dose of nostalgia, keep scrolling to relive those rainy Saturday afternoons spent trying to find all 25 — or more — possible endings.

Note: In pulling this piece together, I am deeply indebted to Demian Katz and his Gamebook Web Page, which catalogs copious amounts of data on Choose Your Own Adventure and other gamebook series. If you’re looking for a branching-path book from your childhood or just want to take a walk down memory lane, go spend some time there. You won’t regret it.

Choose Your Own Adventure was the brainchild of Edward Packard, who based his branching-path “gamebooks” on the interactive bedtime stories he told his children. Packard presented the idea to indie publisher and RPG writer R.A. Montgomery, who published Packard’s Sugarcane Island as the first installment in Vermont Crossroads Press’ Adventures of You series in 1976. Two years later, Montgomery left the press and approached another publisher, Bantam Books, with The Adventures of You. Bantam rechristened the series and launched it as Choose Your Own Adventure in 1979.

A publishing phenomenon was born.

The eight covers on the list below span the first two decades of Choose Your Own Adventure history. That time period produced some of the wackiest, most memorable covers, but it’s not without its problems. Many of the books and their covers contained racist stereotypes, most predominantly of the Yellow Peril and Islamophobic varieties. Thankfully, the series’ contemporary iterations have attempted to rectify these issues to some degree.

Publishing continues to be overwhelming white, however, and that situation was even more dire in the 20th century. As I am able to tell, all the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books were written by white authors — mostly white men. Women writers were few and far between; only two titles listed below have women at the helm. Of those two, one was illustrated by a woman of color: Catherine Huerta, who is a member of the Pasqua Yaqui Tribe.

This is all to say that while I’m all about celebrating the school library nostalgia that Choose Your Own Adventure brings, we must also be mindful of those stories that were left out — or cannibalized — in the process of creating the series.

Below, the eight best Choose Your Own Adventure book covers of the 20th century, ranked.

Ranking Choose Your Own Adventure Book Covers

Gorga the Space Monster by Edward Packard book cover

Gorga, the Space Monster by Edward Packard

Cover by Don Hedin, credited as “Paul Granger.”

Part of the Choose Your Own Adventure for Younger Readers series from Bantam-Skylark, Gorga, the Space Monster holds a lot of appeal for fans of 1990s summer adventure films like The Pagemaster and Mac and Me. You’re staying with your grandparents when a three-eyed purple alien comes to town, and its fate might just lie in your hands!

But we’re here to talk about the cover. Classic Choose Your Own Adventure book covers fall more or less neatly into two broad categories: “Does What It Says on the Tin” and “WTF Am I Looking At.” Both are entirely valid.

Gorga is definitely in the first camp. You pick up this cover expecting a lighthearted summertime adventure with a giant purple space monster, and that’s exactly what you get.

Daredevil Park by Sara and Spencer Compton book cover

Daredevil Park by Sara and Spencer Compton

Cover by Catherine Huerta.

Like most kidlit, Choose Your Own Adventure book cover illustrations leaned toward less stylized depictions of the stories inside as the series progressed into the mid-1980s and beyond. The cover for Daredevil Park — in which you win a ticket to a pre-opening tour of the world’s most tubular amusement park — could easily fit in with any of a dozen or so MG series of the time.

What makes this one special is how menacing it actually manages to be. Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks run the full genre gamut, from slice-of-life stories and cozy-ish mysteries to hard science fiction and portal fantasy. Although most books included a handful of grisly endings for you to meet, very few covers gave off what you might call horror vibes.

Daredevil Park, on the other hand, actually looks like it belongs on a cheesy 1980s horror novella (complimentary), à la a cocaine-fueled Stephen King. The loops on this OSHA violation of a roller coaster keep your eyes in constant motion, and you just can’t shake the feeling these cars full of kids are on a literal train ride into Hell. It’s just *chef’s kiss*.

Sabotage by Jay Leibold book cover

Sabotage by Jay Leibold

Cover by Ralph Reese.

Oh my god, it’s a mirage… of Axis powers. Sabotage‘s cover makes it look like Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang‘s less-cuddly cousin and that alone earns it a spot on this list. At least one reviewer questioned the publisher’s decision to give this such a generic title, as opposed to something more indicative of the book’s contents, which is a valid criticism. But even with no title at all, you just need one quick glance at this cover to see what this Choose Your Own Adventure book is all about. It’s masterful, really.

The Deadly Shadow by Richard Brightfield book cover

The Deadly Shadow by Richard Brightfield

Cover by Don Hedin.

Remember how I said there were two types of classic Choose Your Own Adventure book covers? The Deadly Shadow is firmly in the “WTF Am I Looking At” category. This cover has everything: the disembodied heads of a teenage girl and Christopher Lee as Dracula, a space shuttle, a giant plume of fire erupting from the middle of the ocean, a mountain shaped like a Totoro, and — most importantly — AU versions of Marion Crane and Norman Bates, who have packed up and fled from Norman’s sinisterly overprotective mother. Truly awe-inspiring, this one.

The Movie Mystery by Susan Saunders book cover

The Movie Mystery by Susan Saunders

Cover uncredited, but possibly Thomas Sperling or Sara Kurtz.

As I said before, most Choose Your Own Adventure covers shy away from looking like horror. The Movie Mystery completely ignores that rule, fully embracing the iconic aesthetics of 1980s horror novels while still honoring the series’ affinity for collaged covers. Much like the Ant People cover below, this one practically begs you to pick the book up.

Unfortunately, readers who approach The Movie Mystery expecting a horrific tale of suspense will come away disappointed. As one of the Younger Readers releases, this title was intended for an elementary school audience. Even by a chapter-book metric, however, it’s much, much cozier than you’d expect. The Move Mystery lies closer to Encyclopedia Brown than Goosebumps on the kidlit suspense scale.

A beautiful but misleading cover, it’s still one of the best that the Choose Your Own Adventure classics have to offer.

Prisoner of the Ant People by R.A. Montgomery book cover

Prisoner of the Ant People by R.A. Montgomery

Cover by Ralph Reese.

OK, what’s not to love here? From the creepy villain up top — who looks like the lovechild of Gary Oldman’s Dracula and Prince Froglip from The Princess and the Goblin — to the sentient Chicken McNuggets below, this cover exudes what-the-f*ckery. There’s something delightfully retro about this one, like it belongs on a 1950s pulp novel. It’s the kind of cover that makes you realize you don’t really care what happens inside the book as long as you get to experience it.

Your Code Name Is Jonah by Edward Packard book cover

Your Code Name Is Jonah by Edward Packard

Cover by Don Hedin, credited as “Paul Granger.”

Another downright delightful cover, Don Hedin’s art for Your Code Name Is Jonah feels like an alternate illustration for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many of the espionage-themed entries in the original Choose Your Own Adventure series, this one focuses on out-maneuvering the KGB. I’m not sure exactly how obvious that is from the cover; I’m too distracted by the whale, the orange turtleneck/green plaid blazer ensemble, the Sontaran in a suit, and that one man’s amazingly cartoonish chin. 10/10 here, no notes.

The Cave of Time by Edward Packard book cover

The Cave of Time by Edward Packard

Cover by Don Hedin, credited as “Paul Granger.”

Sometimes, a series takes a while to find its groove. That’s not the case for the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which launched their best cover right out of the gate. The Cave of Time is a masterclass in the weird and wonderful. There’s a very creepy, possibly undead knight, a doofy Loch Ness monster, a medieval Chinese soldier holding a f*ck-off spear, and — perhaps best of all — a T-rex. If anyone ever asks you what the Choose Your Own Adventure books were all about, just show them this cover and let them sit with it for a while.

Want more gamebooks and nostalgia? Check out these pick-a-path books and this ranked list of A Wrinkle in Time book covers.

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