Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald
calgary-ab-august-28-2015-derek-beaulieu-holds-a-stPublished on: August 30, 2015 | Last Updated: August 30, 2015 6:15 AM MDT

For those who remember the exciting, adventure-filled Choose Your Own Adventure books from their childhood, Inside UFO 54-40 may sound a touch nihilistic.

Judging by the cover of the 1982 book by Edward Packard — No. 12 of the popular series — the tale involves UFOs, spider-like aliens and those famous heads on Easter Island. It apparently has 30 possible resolutions and, according to Calgary’s poet laureate Derek Beaulieu, all but one end badly.

“Oddly enough, it’s the only Choose your Own Adventure book that cannot be solved,” says Beaulieu. “There is one happy ending. All the other endings are unhappy. There is one happy ending and you cannot reach it. It’s in the book, you can see it, but none of the choices you make ever lead there. So it’s fascinating.”

It’s not surprising that Beaulieu, known for challenging orthodoxy as both an experimental poet and instructor at Alberta College of Art and Design, chooses Inside UFO 54-40 when asked his favourite Choose Your Own Adventure book.

It was a recent discovery for Beaulieu, not one of the many books from the series he read as a kid. Like many of a certain vintage, he was obsessed with them as a boy. When his parents unearthed a few that had been buried in a box at Beaulieu’s childhood home, it got him thinking.

On Sept. 9, a new batch of students will be taking Beaulieu’s Introduction to Narrative course at ACAD. By that point, he hopes to have accumulated a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, to use as part of the curriculum. No one is arguing that these books are high art. But they did foreshadow a type of storytelling that is now so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. Take Wikipedia, for instance. It’s a new form of self-directed learning “where you start out reading about Calgary and you end up talking about Elvis just because you followed the various links around,” Beaulieu says.

“A lot of the students in this course are design students,” he says. “These are students who want to get into website design, into commercials, into television and movie design. In a lot of ways, Choose Your Own Adventure books foregrounded the way we understand narrative as working on websites and in video games. This is basically fodder for how we understand how video games work. You can turn this way or that way, in any first-person, shooter-style game and it leads to different branched narratives that go from there. That’s the fun thing for me as a teacher is that my students know more about that than I do. I can start the conversation with these books and they can finish the conversation with these websites and video games.”

Beaulieu, who became Calgary’s Poet Laureate in April of 2014, has often used unusual methods as a teacher. In 2013 he asked the public to donate manual typewriters so his creative writing students could learn “how we interface with the tools we have now” by using “dead technology.”

He is now hoping the public will part with whatever Choose Your Own Adventure books they may have kicking around.

“I’m sure that if I had a few in a box, a lot of other people will as well,” Beaulieu says. “These are mass-produced paperbacks and if we can gather them up and use them for a student base they are something we can use over and over.”

The Choose Your Own Adventure series hit their height of popularity in the 1980s. But, oddly enough, the idea of readers being active participants in the narrative they are reading has not completely died out. Actor Neil Patrick Harris toyed with it in his book Choose Your Own Autobiography. Jonathan Ball’s Ex-Machina and Joey Dubuc’s Neither Either Nor Or follow the formula as well.

Beaulieu stresses that this is not a literature appreciation course. Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t likely to replace Shakespeare anytime soon.

On the other hand …

“One of my favourite new books is a fabulous Choose Your Own Adventure-style book,” Beaulieu says. “It’s about 600-pages long. It’s title is To Be or Not to Be (by Ryan North.). It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure style retelling of Hamlet. There are thousands of different ways of finishing the book. You can be Ophelia, or Hamlet, or Hamlet Sr., the ghost.”

If you have Choose Your Own Adventure books, role-playing or narrative card games to donate, e-mail Beaulieu at derek@housepress.ca or drop them off at ACAD’s front desk.

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