Friday, October 7, 2011

A New Take on Ancient Myths: Percy Jackson & the Olympians

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
Miramax, 2006 (first book)

The first time I ever learned about Greek mythology, I was in sixth grade. It seemed reasonably cool – gods with extraordinary powers, heroes going on amazing adventures. But by the time I got to high school and we had to study the myths for a whole unit in my freshman English class, my enthusiasm had waned. They were just a bunch of old stories, right? I mean, it’s not like any of it could happen, and even if it did, it was all thousands of years ago. Wasn’t it? That’s what Percy Jackson thought, too.

Percy has ADHD. He has trouble in school because chaos seems to follow him no matter how hard he tries. He’s nobody’s first pick for anything and doesn’t really think of himself as anything special. He wants to do and be good and is still trying to figure out who he is and what he wants. In other words, he’s like a lot of 12 year olds when you meet him. He certainly reminded me of myself at that age.

Riordan’s saga of Percy, the half-human, half-god son of Poseidon, is an amazingly relatable story even with the premise that has been set up: the ancient Greek gods really do exist, Mt. Olympus is actually above Manhattan, and demigods such as Percy are trained to fight monsters and save the world at Camp Half-Blood. Over the course of five books, we see the world as he does, feeling every conflicted feeling along the way.

It is easy for people to compare the series to Harry Potter. There are undeniably parallels. Both are stories of a boy with a less than desirable childhood/home life (yet with exceptional mothers) who think they just have a hard time fitting in only to discover they’ve been special since birth and that not all is as it seems. However, to me Percy felt a bit more grounded in that the story takes place in this world rather than an “other” location such as Hogwarts. America is Percy’s battleground, and while Camp Half-Blood is certainly unique, Riordan still gives it a summer camp feel that many can relate to.

Another strength of the series is that Riordan expertly keeps his younger readers in mind over the whole course of the five book saga. The choices Percy, his friends, and his enemies all must make get more serious with bigger responsibilities and consequences as the story progresses, yet it never reaches further than what a 12 year old reader will be able to understand.

Where Potter can intimidate some hesitant readers with its length, Percy seems to suck them in. It’s also a great tie in to those mythology units like the ones I had so many years ago – readers can make connections and see those stuffy old gods in a new light. The series also had me saying plenty of times “I forgot about that one!” Riordan has done his homework and put a fresh face on old tales, and readers of all ages will enjoy this young hero’s journey for many years to come.

Rick Riordan's Website
Rick Riordan on Twitter

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