“Most people seem to realize that Greek mythology is part of our cultural heritage. Knowing about Classical Greece and Rome is part of being an educated person,” Rick Riordan said in an interview in 2010.
Riordan’s best-selling children’s series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, chronicles the adventures of a 12-year-old demigod—half-human and half-Greek god—named Percy.
The first novel in Riordan’s five-book series, The Lightning Thief, was published in 2005 and follows how Percy’s fairly normal life as a sixth-grader is altered forever when he is attacked by a monster disguised as his math teacher, taken to a summer camp for demigods, and learns he is the son of the Greek god, Poseidon. In The Lightning Thief, Percy and his friends Annabeth and Grover must go on a quest across the United States to retrieve the god Zeus’ missing lightning bolt and stop an impending war between the gods. The novel concludes shortly after the characters return to camp and the summer ends, and Percy returns home to live with his mom for the school year.
Each consecutive book has a similar plot, for the most part. In book 2, The Sea of Monsters, Percy must go on a quest to rescue Grover. In book 3, The Titan’s Curse, Percy and his friends must rescue Annabeth and the goddess Artemis from their captors. In The Battle of the Labyrinth, book 4 of the series, Percy and his friends go on a quest through the ancient labyrinth, originally built by Daedalus. The final book in the series, The Last Olympian, follows Percy and his fellow half-bloods as they battle the Titan army in New York City.
Percy Jackson in the Classroom
The Lightning Thief is often taught in schools, with a variety of curriculums based on various themes in the series. Having been a teacher for almost 15 years before he became a full-time author, Rick Riordan is a big supporter of his books being taught in the classroom.
In fact, if you search “Teach Percy Jackson” on Google, the first result is a page called “Parent Teacher Resources” on Riordan’s own website RickRiordan.com. This page includes over two dozen documents available for anyone to view or download as a resource, such as “A Complete Lightning Thief Unit,” “The Lightning Thief: A Teacher’s Guide,” and various “activity kits” that give templates for hosting events related to Riordan’s books in classrooms or libraries. The page also includes suggested school projects done by different schools all over the US, and several teaching guides that show ways to use the Percy Jackson books as a transition into teaching mythology and history. By including much fun—but still educational—activity kits for anyone to use, Riordan helps parents and teachers encourage children who are reluctant readers to find reading fun.
Riordan’s Own Experience
Rick Riordan didn’t originally set out to write the Percy Jackson series to be published. One of Riordan’s sons was a reluctant reader growing up; he struggled with ADHD and dyslexia and had little interest in school. He was, however, interested in mythology. After telling his son every Greek myth he knew, Riordan decided to create his own and named his character Percy Jackson.
Riordan embraces his son’s learning disabilities by writing them into the story. In his novels, all demigods have ADHD because they must be ready at any moment to fight monsters, and they have dyslexia because their brains are hardwired to read Ancient Greek. While this may seem silly, it helps kids see themselves in the story and embrace their own learning disabilities.
Part of Rick Riordan’s writing process starting out was to read out loud to his sons, and if they weren’t engaged and didn’t laugh at his jokes, he knew he had to change something. If you’ve read the Percy Jackson books, you can tell. With chapter titles like “I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom,” Riordan’s books can keep even the most ADHD kids entertained.
In Rick Riordan’s books, various important historical figures are said to have actually been demigods, including Harriet Tubman, George Washington, William Shakespeare, Amelia Earhart, and even Houdini. Also, in the Percy Jackson universe, many significant historical events are claimed to have been caused by demigods, such as World War II, which Percy is told was “basically a fight between the sons of Zeus and Poseidon on one side and the sons of Hades on the other.”
While his inclusion of historical figures as demigods may seem random, it actually serves a purpose: to further incite his reader to take interest in history. It is unlikely a child would believe these people were actually demigods or these events related to them, but the mere mention in this widely-enjoyed series gives students a connection of their reading for fun to a potentially boring history class.
In an interview, Riordan mentions his favorite students when teaching as “usually not the honor roll students; instead, they were the students who came in thinking school was boring, found something they could relate to, and suddenly lit up in class.” Riordan’s intention to give his readers this same experience is clear.
Taking the Extra Step
Throughout his books, Riordan goes out of his way to really inform his readers of accurate mythology. However, he makes sure to keep it entertaining by naturally weaving the accurate myth into the story so doesn’t seem awkward or forced. For example, Percy will ask Annabeth about a specific myth and she will explain it to him (and the reader).
In The Heroes of Olympus, Riordan’s five-book continuation series after Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he introduces his readers to a new concept—Roman mythology. Flawlessly inserting the existence of a Roman demigod camp, Camp Jupiter, into the canon of his first series, Riordan teaches his readers even more about ancient mythology. Riordan further emphasizes the importance of maintaining the accuracy of the original mythology and making sure kids are learning by including a glossary of relevant Greek and Roman terms at the end of each Heroes of Olympus book.
Rick Riordan Presents
In 2018 Rick Riordan launched his own “imprint,” a smaller division of the Disney Hyperion Publishing company, in order to help books like his get published. The goal of the imprint, called Rick Riordan Presents, is to “publish great books by middle-grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage.” Already many of the books, including ones highlighting Hindu, Mayan, and African mythology, have become bestsellers. By using his platform as a popular author, Riordan is helping children have more books to learn mythology and giving children from all cultures characters with whom they can identify.
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