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Edward Packard Biography (1931-) - Sidelights

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Though no longer in active American production, Edward Packard's "Choose Your Own Adventure" series has been one of the most popular children's series in publishing history. Dubbed interactive fiction, such books pioneered the path that CD-ROM has followed and have been called both a boon for reluctant readers and stimulating for gifted readers, as well as intellectual junk food. Such books involve the reader directly in choosing options through the course of the book about where to go next, which plot twist they desire to follow, and which action would be most logical for them, and thus provide up to forty possible plot paths and endings in which the reader is the star of the story. It is, however, with this very structure of multiple plots that some critics take exception. Packard himself is aware of such criticisms. In an article on interactive fiction he wrote for School Library Journal, Packard conceded that branching multiple plots tended to be short, and therefore left less chance for character development and complex dramatic development. "Fast-paced action is the norm," he explained. "On the other hand, multiple plots afford the author the opportunity to depict alternative consequences and realities. Complexity may inhere in breadth rather than in length."

But whatever critics and educators may or may not say about interactive fiction, young readers enthusiastically gave the concept a thumbs up, and every major juvenile publisher established its own series. As Packard pointed out in School Library Journal, "If these books are to be exercises in decision-making . . . there should be motivation for each choice offered," so that readers have to weigh factors in favor of each choice. And there need to be consequences that are "consistent and plausible." Packard's subjects in his "Choose Your Own Adventure" series range from science to science fiction, from detective stories to detecting historical and natural truths, and reflect his own range of interests.

Born on Long Island, Packard wrote his first book at age twelve, an introduction to astronomy that was never published. From astronomy, his interest turned to meteorology, and he spent another year reading everything he could lay his hands on about that subject. "I read quite a bit as a kid," Packard once recalled, "but I wasn't what you'd call a bookworm. My favorite was The Book of Knowledge, an out-of-date . . . encyclopedia that was kept in the attic. It was wonderful. It had a marvelous section called 'Things to Make and Do,' lots of interesting puzzles and games, and lots of scientific material." It is exactly that sort of eclectic and playful knowledge that would later inform Packard's own books. At age fourteen he and some neighborhood kids made a movie, Revenge on the Range, which Packard shot with an eight-millimeter camera. "Later on I often wondered why I didn't become more seriously interested in film and moviemaking," Packard once stated. "I think it was because I didn't see any relationship between what I had done and the films I'd seen in the theater."

But such youthful explorations stopped when Packard was sent off to boarding school at Andover, and from there to Princeton. "Princeton was not a good experience for me. I didn't have any clear goals. I fell into the Princeton social life. . . . Later on I regretted not having studied a simple discipline in depth. If I had it to do over again, I would probably major in literature." After graduation, Packard went into the Navy for three years, having gone to Princeton on a Navy scholarship. Commissioned a naval officer, Packard's job was in public relations, with much of his time spent trying "to get the captain promoted to admiral," as Packard once remarked. "The one good thing about the Navy for me was that I did a lot of my own reading. I read more literature there than during college." He also invented a board game to keep boredom at bay. Once out of the Navy, Packard attended law school at Columbia and then practiced law for about twenty years.

Yet all the while there was a desire for something different in the back of his mind. Married, with three children, Packard would read bedtime stories to his kids and often make up stories for them. That time sharing stories with his kids is how he developed the idea for interactive stories. "If I were a better storyteller I wouldn't have come up with this idea," he once recalled. "I'd have been able to devise the endings by myself. Sometimes while telling my kids stories, I'd get stuck or feel too tired to go on. I would ask the kids, 'What do you think Pete would do now?' To some extent I was introducing the Socratic method of questioning for which law school training is famous. The kids loved it. The storytelling became lively and, of course, bedtime was often delayed while we worked out all the adventures the hero might have enjoyed or suffered if he/she had made a different decision."

In this manner, Packard wrote his first interactive work, Sugarcane Island. He then gave it to a literary agent to place for him, but after a year of trying there were no takers. Packard filed the story away in a drawer until one day five years later when he was feeling "moderately unconsciously unhappy" as a lawyer. He read an article about a new children's book publisher, Vermont Crossroads Press, whose co-owner, Ray Montgomery, was looking for innovative material. Packard sent along Sugarcane Island, which Vermont Crossroads subsequently published, and the rest is history. After the successful publication of this initial title, Bantam contracted for six more works, a contract that has extended to over 250 titles, sub-series included. Soon Packard was able to quit his law practice to devote his time to writing. The demand for his work was so high that he and Montgomery had to sub-contract writing to other authors.

Sugarcane Island, Packard's first book and the model for all "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that followed, finds the reader aboard a ship headed for the Galapagos Islands. The ship is wrecked and 'you' the reader are then marooned on Sugarcane Island. "Now the excitement starts," a critic in Publishers Weekly noted in reviewing the book. On each page the reader has to make a choice that affects the possible ending. "Packard has an original idea," the Publishers Weekly reviewer added, concluding that readers could hardly resist trying out all the options and thus experiencing "an exercise in thinking." Rex Benedict, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that the usual rule is to get the child "to turn the pages, preferably in the right direction, 1-2-3 and so on." But the first words of Packard's books are: "Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end." Benedict found that, in following the directions to turn to various pages as he made different choices, sometimes the reader found fortune, sometimes death. "Dead or alive," Benedict wrote, "you keep turning the pages. You become addicted."

Deadwood City has the reader as a stranger riding into town and faced with three initial choices: check out the saloon, the hotel, or the sheriff's office. Each selection will send the reader to a different page and from there more choices must be made. "Each choice has consequences," noted a Publishers Weekly commentator, "leading to further ramifications, so that the book can be a different adventure at each reading." Janet Mura, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, remarked that such books as Deadwood City may "be helpful with unwilling readers." Reviewing Packard's third book, The Cave of Time, a critic for Publishers Weekly stated that Packard had come up with a "gimmicky but intriguing device" in allowing readers to create their own stories. "The brisk, inventive writing will undoubtedly lure kids . . . into making up dozens of different stories," the reviewer concluded. Other critics began to wonder about the negative aspects of the books, however. Writing in School Library Journal, Susan Cain declared that the format, "by definition, eliminates any chance for development of either character or plot line." As a result, Cain noted, the stories are "tedious the first time around, and if reread with the alternate options, they only get more so." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews, in a review of Deadwood City, found such books to be no more creative than video games, and concluded that there was another choice to be made: "Go along with Packard's gag or save your game-playing for the ones you plug into your TV set? Your move."

Many critics suggest, however, that the best of such interactive books are not without value. They are, as Drew Stevens wrote in a School Library Journal review of The Mystery of Chimney Rock, "gimmicky maybe, fun definitely." Beyond that they could "be used in programming, book talks, creative writing and encouraging reluctant readers," concluded Carolyn Caywood in a School Library Journal review of Inside UFO 54-40. And Susan Williamson, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, observed that the books have "appeal for readers of all ability levels" because of their emphasis on participation and concluded that "readers' choices and the resulting consequences are fertile ground for developing students' ability to predict outcomes or for group work on values clarification."

Packard has also written books in several sub-series to "Choose Your Own Adventure," including Tenopia Island, which a School Library Journal critic described as a collective "chronicle of your attempt to escape after crash-landing on 'one of the most forbidding planets in the galaxy.'"

A non-series book for young readers and adults alike was Imagining the Universe: A Visual Journey, in which Packard brings distance and size in the universe down to comparisons with familiar objects. For example, he uses the dimensions of a baseball stadium to lay out the solar system. "This rather elegant pictorial method works just as well when Packard creates time lines that equate time and distance on different scales," stated Donna Seaman in Sci-Tech Books for Adults. "The idea behind this book is a very good one," commented Gloria Levine in a Kliatt review. Imagining the Universe was cited by National Public Radio and by Scientific American as one of the best science books of the year.

Packard also teamed up with illustrator Salvatore Murdocca to create two picture books introducing elementary-school children to big and small numbers. In Big Numbers: And Pictures That Show Just How Big They Are!, the concept of large numbers, from millions and billions to trillions and quadrillions, are taught through the main character Pete and his spotted dog and striped cat. The book opens with one pea on a plate, slowly increases the numbers in successive spreads, and even touches on the concept of a million, billion, trillion, or octillion peas. Lee Bock, writing in the School Library Journal, called the book "a fun introduction to an interesting concept." However, a Publishers Weekly contributor did not find the book "especially illuminating." In Christian Parenting Today, Lisa Jackson noted, "Even if your kids don't like numbers or Using exponents of ten, Edward Packard clearly explains the concept of large numbers by translating them into concrete examples, humorously depicted in pictures of peas by Salvatore Murdocca. (From Big Numbers: And Pictures That Show Just How Big They Are!) peas, they'll like this book." In the case of Little Numbers: And Pictures That Show Just How Little They Are! Packard and Murdocca use a dinosaur to illustrate smaller numbers as the huge dinosaur shrinks down to a trillionth of its size.

For the most part, Packard's books are visual, told in scenes rather than chapters, and full of information of all sorts. There is also very often a message in his interactive books. "I think there is a very strong moral element in my books," Packard once remarked, "but it's not tied up with the choices you make for endings, with rewards and things like that. Just because you choose the wise option in my book doesn't necessarily mean that things will go well from that point on. Choice operates in my books as it does in life: usually good judgement is rewarded, but not always. . . . The basic moral element in my books is the assumption that you, the reader, are a decent and caring person. 'You' never kill or assault anyone or act cruelly in my books. You may be guilty of a transgression—say, of not keeping a promise, or joining up in a dubious scheme to make some quick money—but these are things a weak person might do, a point made to the reader."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, January 15, 1982, p. 651; July, 1982, p. 1438; December 1, 1994, p. 643; March 15, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Big Numbers: And Pictures That Show Just How Big They Are!, p. 1384.

Children's Book Watch, May, 1995, p. 2; November, 2001, review of Little Numbers: And Pictures That Show Just How Little They Are!, p. 1.

Christian Parenting Today, November, 2000, Lisa Jackson, review of Big Numbers, p. 88.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1978, review of Deadwood City, p. 375.

Kliatt, March, 1995, Gloria Levine, review of Imagining the Universe: A Visual Journey, p. 39.

Library Journal, October, 1987, pp. 40-41.

New York Times, August 25, 1981.

New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, p. 43; January 25, 1981, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, April 18, 1977, p. 62; May 22, 1978, p. 233; June 18, 1979, p. 94; February 21, 2000, review of Big Numbers, p. 87; September 3, 2001, review of Little Numbers!, p. 89.

School Library Journal, September, 1978, p. 145; November, 1979, p. 68; September, 1980, p. 76; August, 1982, p. 120; March, 1983, p. 183; December, 1983, p. 31; May, 1984, p. 101; September, 1985, p. 153; January, 1986, p. 82; September, 1986, p. 152; October, 1987, p. 152; March, 1989, p. 177; August, 1990, p. 146; April, 2000, Lee Bock, review of Big Numbers, p. 124; October, 2001, Lisa Gangemi Krapp, review of Little Numbers, p. 144.

Science Books and Films, November, 2001, review of Big Numbers, p. 247.

Sci-Tech Books for Adults, Donna Seaman, December 1, 1994, review of Imagining the Universe, p. 643.

Times Educational Supplement, April 4, 1980, p. 29; July 11, 1980, p. 28; October 1, 1981, p. 31.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1982, p. 52; June, 1982, p. 40; August, 1986, p. 170; February, 1987, p. 295; June, 1987, p. 94; October, 1988, p. 185; June, 1989, p. 110; August, 1995, p. 146.*

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