My eldest daughter is heavily into Choose Your Own Adventure books at the moment.
Do you remember these from when you were a kid? I sure do, although there was a lot less variety of series around back then (cos I'm reeeeeeally, old, y'know ;-) I remember the novelty of them appealing to me at first, but that the thrill of controlling the direction of the story wore thin as I worked out that they were actually pretty badly plotted. Oh, not always - some of them were considerably better than others - but on the whole, we weren't talking Great Literature of Our Time here.
My daughter, though, is still deeply in love with them, having read her way through 10 titles recently and with a fresh stack sitting on her desk awaiting her reading pleasure. She reads them in bed, on the couch, at the table; she reads them aloud to her 6 year old sister and lets the younger girl choose the story direction; she asks me many questions about "facts" in the stories. At least once a day, she'll ask, "Mum, is it true that ... [insert improbable assertion about geography, history or technology here]", to which the answer is almost always, "No, that's just for the sake of the story, honey."
She's in good company, of course - since their 1976 inception, these books have been among the most popular of all series for children, selling over 250 million volumes between 1980 and 1998. They're aimed at slightly older kids (9-13 is what the publishers indicate), but, at almost 8, my girl's language skills are good enough to enable her to really fly with them.
So what is it about Choose Your Own Adventures that makes them so endlessly appealing to middle-grade readers? I might be quite wrong about this, but I think it comes down to three factors:
By allowing readers to determine the direction of the story (within defined tracks), these books allow for more direct, active participation in the text than is possible in conventional stories. For kids who like to Do (which is lots of them at this age), this moves the book from the category of passive to active experience.
2. Easy chunking.
This isn't a particular issue for my daughter, who has Olympian stamina when it comes to reading, but I'd say there is another advantage of these books for kids who have good language skills but shorter attention spans. Because these books usually provide a decision point within 1, 2 or at the most 3 pages, kids don't have to read for extended periods to progress the story. These books are natural short-to-medium reads for that reason alone.
3. Cartoon stories
I realised when listening to A read one of these books out loud to her sister that they had a very bright-colours, sharp-outlines feel to them - very cartoon-like, in other words. This is not intended as an insult - I love cartoons myself and they are enormously and rightly appealing to kids. I think what the Choose Your Own Adventure books capture is that sense of movement, colour, quirkiness, and exaggerated reactions that make cartoons so enjoyable.
All in all, the Choose Your Own Adventure phase is one that I know A is enjoying; these books are totally relaxing for her, pure fun, pure escapism. At the end of the day, the pleasure of reading is one of the most important things I want to give my daughters in this early stage of their literate lives. So if CYOA be the food of fun, read on...