Over at You Chose Wrong, I recently ran a reader submission from a interactive novel about the trouble-plagued Apollo 13 mission and a fair number of folks commented about the creepiness of using real-life persons and events as the basis for a CYOA-style adventure tale.
As much as I wanted to respond with “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” I decided to hold off on unleashing my archival trump card until the appropriate moment.
That moment has arrived.
Written by Anne Bailey and published in 1990, You Can Make a Difference: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the fifty-first and second-to-last installment of the “younger readers” sub-imprint of the beloved Choose Your Own Adventure series.
The blurb of the back cover states “It’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birdbath and you are invulnerable!” (Or at least that’s what I think it says. I have an ex-library copy and some of the words have been partially obscured by barcode stickers.)
I have mixed feelings about the notion of rendering the life and times of one of the most important and transformative figures of the 20th Century into a narrative flowchart. I’m a strong advocate for historical education. Knowledge is power, and a working grasp of history is a cornerstone for informed citizenship.
Considering how much of a hard sell history has become to the masses, it’s difficult to knock a work that makes an effort to enlighten the tots about our nation’s collective past. Yet no matter how laudable the author’s intentions were, there’s no getting around the fact that You Can Make a Difference is bizarre beyond words.
The “you” tasked with making a theoretical difference is a young African-American child chosen to serve as the reader’s narrative proxy. After exposing his ignorance about Dr. King’s historical significance during a family dinner, the child is given a brief parental lecture about the MLK’s life and his role in the civil rights movement.
That night, as he/you nods off in bed, that newly imparted wisdom percolates in his/your subconsciousness dream state and generates the branching path around which the rest of the book is structured.
Do you dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and times? Or do you dream of a world where Martin Luther King, Jr. never existed?
The first path leads to, well, the balcony of a Memphis hotel…
…but not before offering an adequate, if oversimplified (even for eight year olds) summary of MLK’s accomplishments from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Birmingham Jail to the March on Washington. While the reader may choose to make Dr. King knuckle under due to threats of racist retaliation against his family, that decision is instantly overridden by the man’s strong faith in the righteousness of his cause.
So you’re not so much choosing your own adventure as you are choosing your own road to passive-aggressive shaming.
If you decide to dream of a world where MLK never existed, you will find yourself cast into a dystopian nightmare where square-jawed peckerwoods in formal attire bar egress to the Tilt-a-Whirl…
…and segregation of both public transportation and water fountains is still in force.
The intent here was to chill the tykes without terrifying (or providing the grounds for a playground race war), yet it also plays into the fallacy of history shaped solely by “Great Men.” MLK was very much a transformative figure, but it does neither him nor the millions of other participants in the movement justice to paint him as a singular force.
Civil Rights was a cause whose time had come, MLK or no MLK. Someone — or many someones — would have filled that void. Whether they could have done it as ably or effectively as Dr. King did is another subject for speculation, but it’s beside the point.
It also runs contrary to the whole premise of the book. “YOU can make a difference,” but mostly you and your parents will silently fume against injustice while praying for a strong leader to show the way.
The intentions may have been noble, but the fit was terrible. If you want to demonstrate the inspirational qualities of a historical figure, you’re better off looking for a format which isn’t commonly associated with freakishly arbitrary demises. There was no way that the publisher could apply those elements to the subject of MLK…at least not in an offering that could be sold at an elementary school book fair.
It did, however, get me to thinking of a subject whose role in the civil rights movement could be rendered in the properly absurdist and catastrophic terms while retaining the essential educational aspects of the narrative.
On that note, I give you a sample of my forthcoming project We Just Don’t Get It: The Story of the White Socio-Political Establishment: