I remember going to see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in theatres in 2010. I remember absolutely loving it. I remember picking up the book immediately after, quickly finishing it, and realizing that the movie was absolutely awful in comparison. Since then, I have read the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians series more times than I can count, and have continued to read Rick Riordan’s other works: the Kane Chronicles, the Heroes of Olympus, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, the Trials of Apollo, and all of his side stories and companions (they are all sitting on my bookshelf). I still find myself falling in love with each new instalment Riordan publishes. Not only do his stories accurately reflect ancient mythologies, but they reflect modern society as well.
Riordan has accomplished a wonderful merging of worlds, modernizing mythology for a new audience. He has educated his readers on the worlds of the past by creating young, relatable characters that narrate in casual, colloquial (and often, very sarcastic) voices for easier reading than, say, the Iliad or a history textbook. But Riordan has cleverly incorporated much more than a modern twist on ancient mythology. Percy Jackson and the Olympians begins with a simple representation of ADHD and dyslexia, attributes of demigods — their ADHD is described as their battle reflexes, and the dyslexia is due to the fact that their brains are “hardwired for Ancient Greek”. After the success of the original PJO series, he continued to publish more series, set in the same universe, and introduced an incredibly diverse cast of new characters.
The less popular (but still fantastic) Kane Chronicles brings in the world of Egyptian mythology, featuring two biracial characters — Carter and Sadie Kane.
The Heroes of Olympus series continued with the world of Percy Jackson that readers fell in love with, and introduced a new team of heroes, with the addition of Roman mythology. In The Lost Hero, Riordan introduces Leo Valdez, a Hispanic; and Piper McLean, of Cherokee descent. With The Son of Neptune came Hazel Levesque, an African-American; and Frank Zhang, a Chinese-Canadian. In addition, a character returning from the original PJO series, Nico di Angelo, is revealed to be gay.
After HOO, Riordan released Magnus Chase (cousin of Annabeth Chase) and the Gods of Asgard, in which a deaf person and a Muslim girl are main characters. Hearthstone, the elf who communicates through sign language, is a wonderful representation of not only the struggles of those with hearing loss, but also of how having a disability does not mean exclusion. The Muslim girl, Samirah Al Abbas, although working with demigods and Roman deities, remains true to her faith, prays regularly, wears a hijab and educates the character of Magnus of her background and, in turn, educates the reader. The second instalment, The Hammer of Thor, introduces a character that completely changes the game for upper middle grade fiction: a transgender/gender-fluid character, Alex Fierro. Their appearance in the series is a fantastic way to educate children about the gender spectrum and its fluidity. In the same way Magnus is taught by Samirah about her religion, Alex teaches him in an even more extensive manner because, as a product of our current education system, Magnus is absolutely clueless as how to process Alex’s fluidity.
The Trials of Apollo brings the perspective of the god Apollo, trapped in the body of a teenage mortal boy. The series is narrated by the god himself, and the reader learns, piece by piece, of Apollo’s backstory and history. It soon becomes clear that Apollo himself is bisexual. His son, Will Solace, is happily and healthily dating Nico di Angelo. In The Dark Prophecy, a lesbian couple — ex-Hunters Emmie and Josephine — is also represented.
The target audience for Riordan’s books are children ages 10 and up. His characters are diverse in background, religion/faith, sexualities, and disabilities; and Riordan has begun to expose children to these topics through his writings. On his website FAQ , he addresses the topic of Nico di Angelo’s coming out and continues to explain his reasons for continuing to represent characters from diverse backgrounds:
Here’s my statement concerning Nico in The House of Hades:
One of the most important reasons I became a teacher was to advocate for marginalized children — those who are bullied or misunderstood, those who feel lost and alone. As a middle school student myself, I certainly felt that anguish. As a middle school teacher, it was critical to me that all my students saw my classroom as a safe, supportive environment where they could be honored for who they were and express themselves without fear.
I’ve taken the same approach with my writing. It’s essential to me that young readers find a variety of relatable, positive role models in my books. Every child can be a hero. No child should be shamed or shunned for being different.
Nico’s sexual orientation became clear to me the longer I wrote about his character. It was not something I planned. I had no agenda. But when I realized this was a major part of his life experience and the reason for so many of his difficulties with the other characters, it would have been a disservice to his character, the plot of the books, and all my readers simply to sweep the issue under the rug and pretend it didn’t exist. Turning a blind eye to children’s needs is never an acceptable answer.
I’ve been lucky enough to teach all sorts of students — fifth grade to twelfth grade, rich and poor, from numerous ethnic backgrounds, with diverse religious traditions and a variety of learning differences. I’ve also taught gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Some self-identified as early as elementary school. Some came to terms with their sexual orientation later in high school. Most had a hard time during the middle grades, which are tough years for any child. All my middle school students enriched my classroom. They made me a better teacher and a better writer for children, and they all deserve my support.
I am committed to writing appropriate books for the middle grades. This means no bad language, no gratuitous or explicit violence, and no sexual content beyond what you might find in a PG-rated movie — expressions of who likes whom, holding hands, and perhaps the occasional kiss. The idea that we should treat sexual orientation itself as an adults-only topic, however, is absurd. Non-heterosexual children exist. To pretend they do not, to fail to recognize that they have needs for support and validation like any child, would be bad teaching, bad writing, and bad citizenship.
Having said that, a good book, like a good classroom, should raise questions, not insist on a particular set of answers. It certainly should not ignore difficult questions. Whatever a family’s moral and religious beliefs on the topic of sexual orientation, I hope The House of Hades will provide an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about what they believe, and why they believe it. Most importantly, I hope the story continues to entertain and keeps kids reading!
As of time of publishing, The Dark Prophecy stands at #3 on the New York Times Bestseller List for Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover, standing 15 weeks on the list. The original Percy Jackson and the Olympians stands at #9 (despite its last instalment being released in 2009), standing 441 weeks on the list. Rick Riordan stands as #26 on Amazon’s most popular authors. Needless to say, Riordan is one of the most popular authors in children’s fiction, and therefore one of the most influential. With the inclusion of all kinds of characters, all kinds of readers will not only enjoy the books but will be able to connect to them. As a child, I found myself strongly connected to the characters of Hermione Granger and Belle from Beauty and the Beast because they were very much like me. I had the benefit of being a white female, with an arsenal of fictional works at my disposal that I could choose from. Readers of other ethnicities do not have that advantage. Popular/mainstream fiction tends to steer towards the white population (Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, even the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians). Each of these series will of course represent perhaps one or two ethnic characters, but the danger of this is unintentionally making these characters a Token Character for All Ethnicities. With Riordan and his extended universe, however, readers are likely to find someone like them, whether that be pertaining to disability, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion. Representation matters.
Magnus Chase, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead releases on October 3 this year. I cannot wait to see how the story develops, and I cannot wait to meet more new, unique, diverse characters. I will continue to support Rick Riordan as long as he continues to write his stories. His inclusivity is unprecedented. I can only hope that authors will follow his lead to create better literature for children everywhere.
Sources & Further Reading