By now I’m sure most, if not all, of you have read this New Yorker piece describing the ‘problem’ with Rick Riordan’s books. And indeed, I assume the author means to include any book she deems ‘unworthy’ of a child’s time and attention. If you’d care to read a highly intelligent response to this article, I’d recommend this one at author Laura Ruby’s Tumblr. There is a reason she so often makes it into my Friday Finds roundup of authors being smart on the Internet.
The author of the New Yorker piece makes several claims which, while I am in partial agreement with her, do not support her argument that the books in question lack value. The most notable is that “the Percy Jackson books seem positively contrived to repel adult readers, so thoroughgoing is their affectation of teen goofiness.” I’d gladly agree to that if she replaced the judgmentally laden term ‘goofiness’ with something more accurate and neutral, such as ‘culture.’ For full disclosure, I have only read one Rick Riordan book, The Lost Hero, and it was…well, let’s just say it’s not for me. That doesn’t mean it’s not clearly written to engage the interest of middle grade readers. We currently own 48 copies of his novels. This is what is on the shelf today:
It’s a banner day, actually. That shelf is usually empty. Whenever I train new volunteers, I have to explain to them that this shelf belongs to Rick Riordan. When all of his books come in at the end of the year, they don’t all fit on the shelf. And you don’t usually need to shelve them, they come and go from the return cart before you get a chance. But we still keep that shelf for him, for days like today. When I run a list of student book holds, half of them are generally for one of his titles. Students will read his whole series, then go back and start over (it warms my chronic re-reader’s heart!) What does all of this tell me? That these books are being read. That they are incredibly engaging for students. That they provide for SO MANY CHILDREN that one crucial experience where they really connect with a book, or a series, or an author. And those of us who work with them know that this experience is like a controlled substance induced high. Many of these students will continue to chase this feeling, this ‘high,’ and continue to get hooked on more and more books and authors. And along the way they will somehow find that they have become READERS. The mind boggles.
She goes on to find fault with Riordan’s newest publication, Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, for what seems like the oddest reason possible – it looks too much like the book it is trying to ‘imitate,’ D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Her fear is stated thusly:
What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?
The author clearly hasn’t met my sixth grade students. We began their Ancient Greece unit today with a research project focusing on the Olympians. All of them, mainly due to the work of Rick Riordan, have at least a passing understanding of the Olympians, and were immediately engaged with the project. Further, they didn’t shy away from the resource materials we steered them toward, but jumped in with both feet, immediately willing to engage with text above their usual reading level because they already have at least a passing familiarity with (and for most an active interest in) the subject matter.
So yes, many of these students will return, again and again, to these stories, just as I return to the stories of familiar and beloved characters – for comfort, for respite from the pressures of the world, and for genuine engagement with story. Am I worried about their future as readers because of their love of Rick Riordan’s novels? To quote one of my favorite lines from a series I return to with startling regularity, “Good lord no, quite the reverse!”