Okay, I know I promised that my next Choose Your Own Adventure review would be Ghost Hunter, a very popular entry in the series. But I just recently obtained a copy of another very well-liked CYOA book, You Are A Shark. I read it on my recent vacation and decided it was simply too good to pass up a chance to review it. Here is, in fact, one of the most unique and interesting books in the entire series.
You Are A Shark by Edward Packard (illustrated by Ron Wing)
Published: June 1985
Number in the CYOA Series: 45
Many years ago I remember seeing You Are A Shark in a bookstore and thinking, “Wow, that’s a very different premise for a Choose Your Own Adventure book.” I can’t tell you why I didn’t buy it then–I was probably just a kid and didn’t have any money on me–but somehow this book managed to slip through the cracks for a full three decades. Not long ago, my mother was searching for CYOA books to give to my 9-year-old nephew and by chance she managed to find this one too. As I read it I realized what a treasure I’ve been missing for the past 30 years!
You Are A Shark is an interesting and unusual book, and one that definitely returns series co-creator Edward Packard (whom I interviewed in 2013) to the realms of his very best and most imaginative books, like The Third Planet From Altair and Hyperspace. The title of the book is at once appropriate and misleading. Clearly it communicates the premise that in this book “you” will be transformed into an animal, but it’s misleading in the sense that there is only one plot branch where you literally become a shark. The book could just as easily have been titled You Are An Elephant, You Are A Dog, You Are A Zebra, You Are A Whale or You Are A Bald Eagle, because “you” get to be all of these creatures, and more, in its various pages.
In Edward Packard’s You Are A Shark, you (briefly) get to be one of these, but the results may not be what you hope for.
The premise is very simple. You’re backpacking in Nepal, seeking spiritual enlightenment or something, when you stumble into the ruins of an ancient temple. A stone griffin with a menacing expression is carved on its door. It seems to warn you nonverbally that you shouldn’t go in, but you do anyway. You find a wizened old Buddhist monk inside who tells you that you’ve “fallen into the shadow of death” and “the guardian” (the griffin) will punish you by taking your human life away from you. You must exist as an animal, or many animals. If you manage to survive, the guardian will think about maybe returning you to your human form. Until then, kiss goodbye to the human race. Your first choice is whether you want to be a flying creature, a land animal, or an aquatic species.
This book should win an award as having the most straightforward and word-economical setup of the series so far. In fact the premise, flimsy though it is, really doesn’t matter: it’s an excuse to make you into a bunch of animals. The first choice doesn’t matter either, because you keep cycling through various animal existences largely at random. In fact the monk warns you that you may be the same animal more than once, or that time will appear to be repeating itself. (Shades of The Valley of Forever!) This is a nifty way to excuse a much looser and more fluid set of pathways through the book, because the various segments can connect in various ways without worrying about taking you back to some page you’ve already been to. This also lends itself to being a CYOA book where you can keep reading almost indefinitely, without encountering a “The End.” There are only 14 endings in the book, an unusually small number, but it doesn’t matter.
The story segments themselves are quite interesting, and many have an environmental consciousness. Most of the plots involve getting enough food, which if you think about it is 99% of what most animals spend their time doing. As an elephant, for example, you have to cross arid plains to find food and water which are both dwindling as the result of a drought. If you become an eagle, you’re constantly on the lookout for mice, which you can see from the air with powerful vision. As a bear cub you have to learn to catch salmon from a stream which is harder than it looks. These plots all seem very real and are quite interesting. You change form so often that they never get boring.
If you were one of these, you would have to eat. A lot. Where are you going to get all that food?
There are also human and environmental threats you have to avoid. As soon as I got to be a whale on page 6 I knew there would be a sad ending where I get hunted by whalers–indeed, that’s your fate on page 113. (Incidentally, this leads to a choice where you can become a shark). As a gorilla and an elephant you face threats from poachers. In one very interesting plot you become an Arctic sled dog. In another interesting tangent, you’re a common house cat living in a woman’s urban apartment. The interplay between animals and humans is a constant theme of the book.
The only criticism I have of the book is a pretty minor one: the human resolution, meaning the story with the temple and the Buddhist monk, is pretty lame, and in only a few instances does it even resolve at all. That’s a minor point because the premise really is secondary. The fun of the book is being and surviving as an animal, not trying to get back to your human form. That could easily have been the focus, but Packard chose not to go there. Good choice.
This is just a delightful book–imaginative, easy to read, thought-provoking and enjoyable. This is about as good as Choose Your Own Adventures get. It’s undoubtedly a highlight of the series.
Next up: I really will do Ghost Hunter next time! Promise!