I can tell you right now that there are going to be some interesting gender dynamics in this review. Here I am, an adult non-heterosexual male, about to review a children’s book from the ’80s that was very obviously aimed at girls, in marked contrast to the spies, aliens and other “boy stuff” you often see in this series. Can I even do it objectively? Well, I’m going to give it my best shot.
The Magic of the Unicorn by Deborah Lerme Goodman (illustrated by Don Hedin)
Published: December 1985
Number in the CYOA Series: 51
Deborah Lerme Goodman’s The Magic of the Unicorn is a competent, though not outstanding, Choose Your Own Adventure story. It’s generally well-written and its heart is in the right place, and I found that it read quickly and held my interest pretty well. It’s not in the top tier of CYOA books, but it delivers most of what it wants to promise. In 185 books not every single one is going to be The Third Planet From Altair. Goodman seems fine with that, and so am I for the most part.
Although it involves fantasy creatures, I was surprised that The Magic of the Unicorn does not take place in an explicitly fantasy world. “You” live in a small farm village in Flanders in the year 1507, and there’s a terrible drought going on. Unfortunately a rat got into your town’s well and died, tainting the remaining water supply. (Of course I suppose you could still drink the water, but you might catch National Hotel Disease). A wise old woman in the village tells you that you should try to find a unicorn and lure it to the well. Supposedly the magical powers of the unicorn’s horn will purify the water. You set out to search for a sorceress that can help you. Interpreting a riddle as to the whereabouts of the sorceress, your first choice is whether to search in the town graveyard or a nearby leper colony.
The scenario is at least straightforward, and this book has a clear goal that you must continue to search for throughout all of the permutations of the story. Many of the plots center around you searching for something or someone in various places. You could end up exploring an old church, including its caves below, or a forest where unicorns are rumored to exist. One fairly interesting plot has you hitching a ride to Arras, the nearest large city, which in real life at this time was a center of the Flemish textile industry. In the book one of the plots involves you weaving a magic tapestry to help your village. There are plenty of magical elements too: in addition to the sorceress and the unicorn there’s also a warlock, dragons, griffins and a creature that’s half-human and half-tree. And, of course, animals talk. I’m curious why Ms. Goodman chose to set the story in a real-world historical locale, yet describe a world in which magic is commonplace. It’s interesting, but also somewhat confusing, as the reader is not exactly sure where the rules of the real world end and those of magic begin. Harry Potter, for instance, keeps a bright line between the magical world and that of “Muggles.” No such line exists here.
Sadly, this is not an ending in The Magic of the Unicorn. Maybe it should have been, though.
Still, as solid and competent as The Magic of the Unicorn is, it’s nothing really special. No magical element or situation in the book is ever really original. It’s all pretty milquetoast fantasy, and Goodman doesn’t seem to have had any real ambition to make it otherwise. This is fine, especially in series books, so it’s less of a criticism than simply an observation. Children who like magic and fantasy stories will probably respond pretty well to it. What I feel is missing is more of an element that would appeal to me as an adult, so it’s somewhat unfair to criticize a children’s book for not being satisfying to adult sensibilities.
As an adult, however, I can address some of the gender issues raised by these books in a way that a child probably wouldn’t notice. I suspect this book came about at least partially because somebody at Bantam said, “Hey, you know, we ought to do more Choose Your Own Adventure books that appeal to girls.” The CYOA series has always had a difficult relationship with gender. In every CYOA book the “you” protagonist is written entirely gender-neutral, but the illustrations and cover art–not chosen by the authors–usually couldn’t avoid picking sides. When I interviewed series co-founder Edward Packard in 2013, he had this to say about the gender issue:
When Bantam launched the Choose Your Own Adventure series, they insisted that “you” be depicted as a male, maintaining that girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Unsurprisingly, some girls complained about this, and when a new girl-oriented series, called Baby Sitters Club, became popular, CYOA sales slumped. Bantam tried depicting “you” as a girl in some books, but that only made matters worse.
The illustrations in The Magic of the Unicorn show “you” as a girl. On one level that seems appropriate, but on a broader level I also question why we should assume that stories about unicorns and sorceresses would be more appealing to girls than to boys. Millions of boys (and girls) have read The Lord of the Rings, so why is this assumption so automatic? I don’t know the answer to that, but at least from a marketing standpoint The Magic of the Unicorn never challenges this assumption. It’s probably societal. If you were a girl in the ’80s chances were good your parents bought you My Little Pony stuff, while your brother got the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier. What causes this is beyond the scope of this review.
Next up: Edward Packard gets into the paranormal investigation business in Ghost Hunter.