My daughter discovered Percy Jackson in the third grade and hasn’t read much else since. I have defended this choice, because like Neil Gaiman and education specialists everywhere (stay tuned for my article on the subject in the March issue of ParentMap), I believe that any reading is good reading. My own experience supports this. I too read high fantasy obsessively and exclusively for several years at about the same age, and I have grown to be an adult who reads primarily nonfiction and medieval literature.
Meanwhile, Rick Riordan has become something of a whipping boy for the literary establishment, trotted out as an example of what’s wrong with children’s literature today at every opportunity. It seemed strange to me. Riordan writes long narrative novels that incorporate classical mythology – doesn’t that sound like exactly what literary types would want their kids to be reading? Was it just a case of literary hipsterism that declared something so popular couldn’t possibly be cool?
So I finally read The Red Pyramid, the first book in his second series and then read the book that started it all, The Lightning Thief. And I can say with absolute certainty that the Riordan-bashing is a straightforward case of sour grapes.
These are texbook examples of how to write for middle grade kids. Of course there are caveats – the first one being that they are books for middle grade kids. The plots are very linear, subplots are limited, the syntax is simple. You can also argue that the two books have exactly the same plot, and I would not have very much to say in response. Except that it’s a really good plot, and in both cases Riordan still managed to surprise me on a few points.
I’m also quite concerned at the way Riordan has run with the Orphan Device. Not only do both heroes lose their mothers, but they both must choose between saving their parents and achieving their own quest (saving the world, so not fair). They’re still kids’ books, so there’s a “mom is dead but not really” aspect to both stories, but still.
A popular complaint is that Riordan’s prose is so snappy it doesn’t improve kids’ understanding of the English language. It’s true that my daughter can read a Percy Jackson book in an afternoon while she still struggles to get through a chapter of The Secret Garden, so there is some truth to the accusation. But when a backseat full of ten year olds can correct me on the functional distinctions between Hera and Hestia, I’m going to give Riordan an A for educational value anyway.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the tight pacing, Riordan’s plots are practically watertight. For kidlit, they are hermetically sealed. At the same time, he is quite efficient at evoking the world his characters inhabit. A former teacher, Riordan clearly understands kids and their own internal realities. I was very impressed with the way he dealt with race in The Red Pyramid. His protagonist siblings are biracial, and although no more than a couple paragraphs are devoted to that fact in the entire book, the reader understands how it has impacted each child’s view of themselves, the way they present themselves to the world, and their relationships with their relatives of each race. As in real life, it is always there in the background, usually superceded by more pressing matters like bickering with your sibling, but occassionally, like when you find yourself addressing a security guard, rising to the forefront.
Apparently Riordan’s own son is dyslexic and ADHD, like the famous Percy Jackson, and I can’t help but read the entire story as a love letter to the real-life boy. I’ve read lots of YA books with anti-heroes who casually talk about their loserness. But I have never read any other book that made me feel the hopeless resignation of a kid who feels like a fuck up. Whether he’s screwing up at school or accidentally saving someone’s life, Percy Jackson never really seems to understand the connection between his actions and their outcomes, and he’s troubled by his inability to think through problems. As much as I think modern parenting has taken the snowflake thing too far, it’s a little heartbreaking to imagine life as a kid who really doesn’t believe there’s anything particularly good or special about them.
Riordan ties Percy’s learning disabilities to his demigod identity, brilliantly creating a scenario that helps kids understand how they don’t have to be normal to be good. Percy Jackson’s ADHD impulsiveness is what keeps him alive when he’s attacked by monsters, but it still gets him in trouble at school, where he still has to struggle to maintain his D average. Riordan has achieved a hero’s quest undertaken by all special needs parents; he has explained away the stigma of a learning disability without erasing the difficulties it causes.
So yeah, I’m going to read all his books.