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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Thank you, Ray

When I visit middle schools I often get asked, “What was your first book?” I say, well, the first book I wrote was rejected 75 times and never published — but the first one I got published was the one Ray Montgomery didn’t have time to write.

Ray gave me my start. I had never written for young-adult readers, had never thought about it; my first, much-spurned project was a nonfiction book for grownups, as was my second, also rejected, and I’d done two picture books that hadn’t had any better luck. I was just about 40, I had a small boy and a new divorce — and though I still scratched out a living as a freelancer, I had pretty much lost all hope and drive for the dream, my deep dream, of writing and publishing books.

But I had worked on a multimedia project with Ray, and one day he called me. A few years older than me, he was a rare creature: a big guy and an extra-large character, relentlessly creative and inquisitive, equal parts author and entrepreneur. His voice on the phone always boomed: “This is Ray!” This time he had a proposition. Ray was one of two creators of Choose Your Own Adventure, a series of interactive paperbacks for young readers that had been wildly popular in the 1980s and now, in the early 90s, was still bringing out almost a book a month through Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Ray had a looming deadline with Bantam, but he was still overwhelmed with producing his multimedia thing. He hadn’t had time even to start the book. Would I like to write it?

“I proposed a story about a planet that gets forgotten — that’s all I remember,” he said. “It’s due in a month. We’ll pay you $2,500.”

For a freelancer, those are the magic words; and even though I had no clue about science fiction, writing an interactive story sounded a lot more fun and interesting than churning out another newsletter or annual report, so of course I said yes. In 1993, Bantam published The Forgotten Planet, the first of eight Choose Your Own Adventures that I would produce over the next four years.

In the world of books for kids, Choose Your Own Adventure is a unique, still-resonating invention. Each story is told in second person. Guided by Ray, I made “you” a kid in Gettysburg, as the great battle unfolds; a Viennese orphan being raised by a Jewish baker who is hauled off to prison by Nazi thugs; a high-school swimming sensation whose top competitor at your first Olympics is on performance-enhancing drugs. Every five or so pages, “you” face a choice — usually with two options, sometimes three, but that was hard to pull off. The choice you make determines what page you turn to next. So each Choose book looks like a regular paperback, but it doesn’t read like one: it might have 12 or more different endings.

The original series sold over 250 million copies worldwide between 1979 and 1999, with 184 titles by 30 different writers that, in all, were translated into 38 languages. (The full story, with Ray's central role, is told here.) Bantam then let the series go out of print — but after years of struggle, Ray and his wife, Shannon Gilligan, secured the rights to CYOA and re-launched the series in 2004 under their own new imprint, Chooseco of Warren, Vermont. They republished a number of titles with new packaging, often with updated art and text, and they brought out several new books, including my Curse of the Pirate Mist of 2011.

Ray’s impact on the readers of the world has been huge. Because Choose books give you power over the reading experience, they are uniquely engaging and appealing, especially to young people who think they don't like reading or that they aren’t good at it. For an uncountable number, the series has been a launching pad to a better, richer life as readers — and not only for kids. I had a friend who had taught reading to adults in a correctional center, and she said the Choose books were among the most potent tools she had.

After my last title for the Bantam series, The Underground Railroad, came out in 1996, I moved on to writing realistic stories, “regular” novels, for middle schoolers. But every once in a while, the phone would ring and the booming voice would announce, “Doug, it’s Ray!” Without fail he’d have some amazing new project. He and Shannon conceived and produced interactive adventures on CD-ROM; they brought to market a remarkable multimedia product called “Comic Creator”; they worked on online interactive adventures; he wrote a novel about China. He always had something.

Some of the projects didn’t come off, but Ray always, always projected an irresistible creative enthusiasm and energy. I should add “salesman” to his package: author/entrepreneur/salesman, plus philosopher, innovator, sportsman, family man. He unfailingly asked about my son, Brad, whom he always remembered and in whom he always took an interest. I knew how much he adored Shannon and both his boys, one of whom left the world far too soon.

The last time I saw Ray, a year or so ago, we had dinner to talk about a new project that Chooseco had cooked up, that I would get to write. He was so excited. “We’ll have some really good talks,” he said as we left the restaurant. I thought that sounded just great. But the project fizzled, and we never did have those talks. I got an email yesterday from Shannon letting me and many others know that, after a courageous four-year battle with cancer, Ray passed away last Sunday. He was surrounded by friends and family, by people he loved, who loved and treasured him.

The friends I admire most are often the ones who never give up, who have a vision that keeps evolving but never dies. Ray’s never did. He made a difference in my life and he made a much greater difference in the world, in ways that will continue to unfold in the lives of more readers than anyone will ever know. He chose his own adventure. It goes on and on.

Rest in peace, Ray. And thanks.

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