Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Recommended Reading: Percy Jackson & The Olympians

In addition to being a stay at home mom, I also tutor a few students throughout the school year. One of the great pleasures of this work, in addition to the fact that I get to be a teacher for a couple of hours a week, is that I have the chance to read what my students read. I have had the chance to revisit some classics (Death of a Salesman, Scarlet Letter, Things Fall Apart) and also discover books that would have otherwise passed me by. This year one of my kids has been obsessed with the entire Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I didn't really know much about this series except that the first book, The Lightening Thief, had been made into a movie a couple of years ago. But when my student told me he read all five books in the series within two weeks, I knew these books must have some serious mojo.

In an effort to catch up to my Olympian obsessed student, I have been borrowing his books one at a time and reading a book a week. I just completed the final book in the series, and I have to say that these books are entertaining, well-written, fast-paced and appropriate for middle school students. I include that last descriptor because while I loved every Harry Potter book, I am not sure that by the 4th book, J.K. Rowling was really writing for 13 year olds any more, the subject matter got so dark, grim and violent. Riordan's books have a lot in common with Rowling's - they both focus on an adolescent boy who discovers he has extraordinary powers and is the central figure in a potentially world-ending prophecy. Both Percy, Riordan's protagonist, and Harry must go on dangerous quests with loyal friends. And both boys must come to terms with betrayal, life's inherent injustice and the eternal fight between good and evil. Rowling created the world of magic and muggles. Riordan's characters are half-bloods, the children of Greek gods and mortals.

Riordan fully imagines the Greek gods and their myths as critical plot pieces in his adventures. As an adult, I found these links between ancient myths and modern times truly fascinating. And as reader of any age, I liked getting to know Percy, much like I enjoyed seeing Harry grow up throughout Rowling's books. Percy, like all heroes, has flaws, and the exploration of these is done gently. In the first book, we learn that Percy is seen as a bit of a screw up. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, he has been kicked out of every school in the New York metropolitan area. But we come to learn that the ADHD is actually a common trait among half-blood heroes. It turns out that heroes need that impulsive temperament and wandering attention to survive the many challenges they will face in world where monsters seem to lurk around every corner.  It was this aspect of Percy's character evolution that I found most touching, especially when I thought of the many kids I have taught who came to believe a diagnosis of learning disability was the defining factor in their school experience. It is a pleasure to observe how Percy learns to harness the qualities that he has always considered a detriment to help him become a hero in every sense of the word. His brand of humor, sarcasm and adolescent angst feels both real and poignant.

If you have a young reader in your life, or if you like to dabble in young adult fiction, I would highly recommend this series. And if you know of a young person with ADHD and/or dyslexia, these books offer a wonderful role model of a student who more than overcomes his perceived "disabilities."

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