Back in the ’70s, there was merely a trickle of Star Wars merchandise compared to the cornucopia of content fans have to enjoy nowadays. So instead of video games and animated fare and comics you have today, we fans subsisted on bubble gum cards, a few action figures, and whatever else we could find. But ask anyone from my generation and they have fond memories of those rare treats. The ones that stand out in my mind to this day were the books from Random House.
Published in 1979 by Black Falcon Ltd. under the Random House label, they were soft cover books for younglings that featured either stories or activities. The three I still own to this day are Darth Vader’s Activity Book, Chewbacca’s Activity Book, and the story book titled The Mystery of the Rebellious Robot.
The Mystery of the Rebellious Robot featured a story set in the time immediately following the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope. In fact, it actually took place at a Rebel base on Tatooine and had all our favorite heroes involved like we’d just popped in right after Luke blew up the Death Star. Illustrated in the ’70s flair by Mark Corcoran, the pictures had an acid wash feel to them with swirling blends of colors. The characters were funky and unkempt-looking, with wavy hair and wild-eyed expressions. My favorite has to be Chewie, who looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book.
What I love most about the book is the time capsule quality of the story elements. We get a glimpse at the fledgling Star Wars universe before it exploded into a thousand expansion ideas. Sit back and enjoy thinking about moisture vaporators (and super-vaporators!). Watch in awe as Chewie and R2-D2 square off playing Planetary Poker on the very chess table where Artoo bested the Wookiee in the movie. Read about Luke using the “mysterious” Force like it hadn’t been ingrained into popular culture yet and needed explaining.
But most of all I just love the never-ending struggle between the Jawas and the droids. We only got a brief chance to see Jawas in A New Hope. But if the movie was a high-speed freeway, a book like this was a rest-stop where we could pull over and take our time to learn more about them. And boy are they jerks in this story! Don’t expect an Agatha Christy caper, it’s pretty straightforward for kids to understand. But I always enjoyed reading it, knowing the Jawas were more formidable than the movie let on.
On to the puzzle books, which were even more entertaining. Illustrated by Patricia Wayne, they featured black-and-white illustrations which were no less rich for their format. Cross-hatching in the illustrations gave them an old-world feel, like they were wood cuts.
Vader’s Activity Book was focused, of course, on what would be on Vader’s mind. There were brain teaser puzzles alluding to the Force, the idea being the reader gets a clue for how something so mystical would feel. If you wanted to know how the Empire works, there were secret codes to use and decipher. And of course there were crossword puzzles, connect-the-dots, and card games. Crafts included building a Vader bank from a salt container, optical illusions you created with pictures twirling on a string, and a recipe for a huge Death Star cookie (and yes, I asked my mom to make one and it was HUGE).
My favorite activity was the Destroy Death Star game near the back, where you closed your eyes and traced your pencil along the trench of the Death Star hoping to evade obstacles to hit the target. That was so ingenious a way to simulate the Force I used it for years with my own kids on custom-drawn obstacle courses. You’ll be surprised how eager kids get into that game while you’re sitting at a restaurant and all you have is a place mat and crayons to bide your time.
Lastly there was Chewbacca’s Activity Book, and I guess this was the “good guy” alternative to the Vader book. In it you found the same beautiful illustrations by Patricia Wayne, only with more good guys in it. You can play Chewie’s Chess on a grid using math to help navigate a maze, learn the Rebellion card game, and decode some Rebellion messages as well as the regular crossword puzzle and maze fare. But what I found advanced for kids’ books at the time was the use of spatial reasoning in the Crazy Cube game, brain teasers using line drawings that feature on IQ tests even today, and the traveling salesman style of puzzles used to navigate planets. Pretty cool stuff to learn when I was a kid, and I never forgot them. And who can forget Chewbacca’s Chewies? Caramel never tasted so good.
Okay, so I know what I’m describing puts me squarely in the quaint old-timer’s corner of Star Wars fans. I don’t know how many people remember those books or if it’s only me. But the ’70s were a time where fans were so jazzed at the new revolution in storytelling that we ate up anything with Star Wars on it. I just feel lucky that, as a kid growing up loving puzzles and learning, these books weren’t dumbed-down fare even though they easily could have been. Instead I found them thought-provoking and captured a sense of the Star Wars universe that kept you coming back for more.
Maybe one day they’ll reprint the puzzles in the books. I’d be interested in how kids today can handle them (probably a lot better than I did!). In the meantime, I’ll keep stumping my kids with handmade Tests-of-the-Force diagrams on the back of restaurant place mats. There’s nothing like the excitement they feel that first time they close their eyes and score a direct hit on the Death Star. Thanks Random House!
Albin Johnson was a lowly stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to find the 501st Legion “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.