Monday, March 18, 2019
March 18, 2019: YA Series: Rick Riordan
[In a development that I’m sure will shock precisely no one, my 13 (!!!) and about-to-be 12 year-old sons are both huge readers. They are fans of many authors and books, but for this week’s series I wanted to focus on, well, series—Young Adult series in particular—that they love. Please share your YA recommendations, series or otherwise, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On how slight variations in a YA series can seriously change the reading experience.
I know these things can evolve over time, but at least to this point in their young reading lives neither of my sons have found the Harry Potter books very engaging (and both have read at least as far as the second book). Perhaps that’s partly because I’m not a fan of the series and we can’t talk about them together, but their Mom is a big fan so that’s certainly not a sufficient reason (and I also haven’t read most of the series I’ll write about this week, so they’re more than happy to get into something on their own terms in any case). Of course there’s our old family friend the windy bus, and I do think there’s not necessarily a great deal of value in trying to analyze personal tastes, and doubly so personal tastes when we’re young and those tastes can and will change (a couple years ago my sons literally couldn’t get enough of the Skylanders; now, not so much). But on the other hand, I do find their lack of Potter interest striking in light of how much they’ve both come, over the last year or so, to love the pretty similar books and series by the hugely popular YA author Rick Riordan.
Beginning with his first YA book and the start of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief (2005), Riordan utilized a formula similar to the Potter books (and, to be fair, to numerous other fantasy series, going back at least to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books): seemingly ordinary kids realize that there is a world of magic adjacent to our own and that they are deeply connected to it. While Potter and most such series invent their magical worlds, however, the middle school English and Social Studies teacher Riordan came up with a compelling twist (one based on bedtime stories for his own son): using the stories of Greek mythology and imagining a 21st century world in which those Greek gods and goddesses still exist. Percy and his peers are not just magically gifted but are in fact demigods, linked by heritage to that mythological world as well as to the human one (Percy is the son of Poseidon and a mortal mother, for example). In subsequent series Riordan has extended this general concept to Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies and stories. I believe these mythological links have been key to my sons’ enjoyment of the Riordan books (they have read every book in every series over the last year), as they’re right at the age when such myths seem to strike many young people (I know they did for me) and remind us why they have endured for millennia.
Mythological links or no, however, the Riordan books also have to work on their own terms or readers like my sons would just turn back to the original myths instead. And to my mind, another choice that has made these books work so well for my guys is Riordan’s use of first-person narration (not a constant across all the series, but the case for many of them including Percy Jackson), and a very funny, personable, and engaging narration at that. Just look at the title of Lightning Thief’s first chapter: “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher.” Or that chapter’s (and book’s) opening lines: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.” Compared to the more formal, clearly adult third-person narrator of many YA fantasies like Potter and Narnia, Riordan’s first-person narrator sounds like a middle schooler, and indeed quite a bit like my sons. Making it no coincidence that they’ve been so sucked into these characters and their fantastic stories and worlds.
Next series tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post? Other YA lit series, books, or authors you’d highlight?