As a kid, I never read a choose your own adventure book, but I recently discovered it is never too late to try out the genre. I decided to read The Murder at Old Willow Boarding School by Jessika Fleck, a Champaign-Urbana based author who focuses on young adult and middle grade fiction. This choose your own adventure book came out right on time for Halloween season, and was just published on October 3rd. This mystery book references Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a few times, another kind of Halloween allusion, which Fleck told me she was drawn to: “It was definitely an inspiration, not so much for my specific story but for the general dark and gloomy atmosphere and I suppose each of the students in the story are considered misunderstood ‘monsters’ by the society in which they live.” Using this as a kind of foreshadowing for the book, get ready to read and explore the paths of the book.
This review contains some spoilers.
When first opening The Murder at Old Willow Boarding School there is a page dedicated to all the characters, listing their name, pronouns, and superpowers. The Old Willow Boarding School is filled with students who were sent to the school because of their powers. The headmistress remains suspicious in the majority of the different adventures, and it seems as though she has something against the kids and special powers. When I asked Fleck about her inspiration and how she decided on the superpowers, she said: “The superpowers were very much off the top of my head, which is honestly how I get some of my best ideas. I didn’t necessarily want the story to be about regular kids at a boarding school — I needed a bit more to keep things exciting. Also, I really wanted to offer readers a cast of unique characters and giving them each quirky gifts was a great way to do that. So for each, I came up with a backstory of what their gift was and how it ultimately landed them at the exclusive Old Willow School. And it was important to me that each of their powers be both a blessing and a curse… because nothing is ever perfect, right?”
Pearl is the main character; she is telekinetic with only red objects, and in the book, she dies mysteriously, and wakes up soon realizing that she is now a ghost. She has no recollection of how she died, but she has decided to figure it out once her body turns up at the school. The different paths stem from there. Some paths will lead you into learning more about the characters, including Elwyn, Pearl’s best friend, and Constance, Pearl’s enemy. Learning about the different characters enriches, strengthens, and complicates the story.
Fleck said writing the characters and setting was the most fun for her when creating the book: “I really wanted to bring a lot of characterization to the book since there was a fairly large cast of quirky students. So giving each of them a backstory, making them all a possible suspect, and bestowing upon them these gifts that weren’t necessarily positives in their lives was great fun. As for the setting, I adore an old Victorian haunted mansion, so that was a no-brainer. Adding secret passages and multiple cemeteries and a hedge maze was just icing on the cake.”
My favorite endings included those where the author spent some time discussing one of the side characters, compared to some endings that were shorter and sometimes only dealt with Pearl, Benedictine (The Headmistress’ cat) and the likely suspects, the Headmistress and her assistant, Mr. Fitzerherbert. In those endings, although still enjoyable, I wanted more from the adventures, and I felt like the endings often ended unexpectedly, which is not always a bad thing. Nonetheless, this is the benefit of having a choose-your-own-adventure book; you can just go back and start over. My favorite ending was the cops arriving and arresting the Headmistress and Mr. Fitzherbert for human science experiments, money laundering, framing students for murder, and murder. Another good one was Constance being the main suspect and trapping Pearl in the cellar where she is stuck with ghost-like zombies who guard the exit. The author said her favorite ending involved zombies too.
Some alternative endings included Pearl ending up in Iceland, the Headmistress selling the school to a seafood restaurateur, and Pearl getting stuck in Benedictine’s play room. I asked the author why she decided to do a choose your own adventure book opposed to a standard book: “Choose Your Own Adventure is unique in that it places the reader in the driver’s seat of the story — the reader, or you, are the protagonist. These books immerse readers in a way most other books cannot. They also offer the chance for multiple story redos. It’s like getting a game with replay ability! This is what I loved as a kid (and why the books appeal to reluctant readers (which I was))… if I didn’t like a particular ending or regretted a choice, I could always turn back and choose the other option for a different outcome. Exploration is inherent (encouraged!) to Choose Your Own Adventure books,” Fleck said.
For the middle school audience this book will be a fast-paced read. The beginning and middle of the adventures are well-written, thought out, with a steady pace, and the endings are quick, within one to two, maybe more, pages Pearl’s outcome is explained. Yet, this set up makes it great to go back and read a new path. While reading, some adventures encounter symbols, such as a yellow ribbon or a broken mirror. Normally, this was kind of hinting at a specific person to be responsible because the clue was related to them. However, I also felt these symbols were not totally useful in the story because the ending was sometimes not impacted by the symbol. Still, these clues help to liven the story and continue the mystery.
Murder at the Old Willow Boarding School is quick read with super powers, mystery, and spookiness and is great for middle school students to dive into during the Halloween season. You can find the book online, at Barnes & Noble, and locally, at The Literary. If you end up a fan, Fleck is also currently working on two other speculative fiction novels for middle grade readers.