Sunday, August 02, 2009

Book Look: Percy Jackson & The Olympians

Book Look: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: A five-book series, this is clearly designed as a candidate to step into the shoes of one Harry Potter and it may just achieve that given that a movie is planned for 2010.

The genesis of the Percy Jackson series starts with author Rick Riordan's son, who was diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia. Riordan was a teacher of Greek mythology and he would tell his son all the old tales, but he ran out eventually and his son clamored for more so he began making up new ones. Thus he created Percy (Perseus) Jackson as a paradigmatic dysfunctional youth.

Percy, like Riordan's son, is saddled with ADHD and dyslexia. His mother is struggling to support his family including his abusive, evil leach of a stepfather. He has gotten expelled from just about every school he's attended. Percy is about to discover that all his issues all stem from the fact the he is a demi-god. It turns out the gods of Ancient Greece are actually still around an operating in the world and he is the son of one of them. High adventure, coupled with maturation, follows for five books eventually culminating when Percy turns 16 and fulfills a Great Prophecy.

It summarizes like typical formula kid lit, and it is, but it has some good modifications. The hero, Percy Jackson, is not a goody-goody dweeb like Potter. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's a smart ass. He can be snarky, glib, sarcastic, and generally has a strong tendency to crack wise -- all of which adds humor and tends to get him into trouble, but it will help your standard-issue pre-teen identify with him, because they are all like that too.

More interestingly, there is a decidedly pro-Western Civilization theme, and it is U.S. centric in settings, primarily Manhattan. For example, we come to learn that the Greek Gods existence is intertwined with Western Civilization, and that Mount Olympus migrates to wherever the most powerful center of Western Civ happens to be at that time in history -- Athens, Rome, London, etc. -- in this era, it's over Manhattan. (You get there from a magic elevator in the Empire State Building.)

There are also bits of wry commentary here and there. For example, when asked, "If Mt. Olympus is over New York, then where is the entrance to the Underworld?" the answer is "Los Angeles, of course." San Francisco, it turns out, is the point of origin for most of the truly scary monsters who try to conquer Olympus and the gods. Even more: author Rick Riordan, the teacher, has some fun by turning the riddle of the Sphinx into a multiple choice test that is graded by machine. When the machine is destroyed the Sphinx decries having to grade all those tests by hand.

Of course, it's important to remember that this is kid lit. Contrivance, shamelessly obvious plot manipulation, beneficial coincidence, and Deus ex Machina are part and parcel with the proceedings. It would be death to an adult story, but kids won't care, provided their disbelief is appropriately managed for entertainment's sake. There is also minor, and somewhat out of place, subplot of childish environmentalism, but again, it's for children. These are small complaints.

More importantly, Riordan keeps things moving. Note that none of these books are of Rowlingsian length. The fact that there are five, well structured, fat free books versus seven somewhat rambling Potter tomes is a big plus for Percy Jackson in the kid lit wars. Also, it contains the single most important quality kid lit can have these days: No Frickin' Vampires. (I am so sick of vampires.)

There's good stuff in here for youngsters, lesson-wise. The kids have to grow up and make decisions in the absence of certainty. They have to live with their decisions and learn that just because they made good ones doesn't mean everything will always work out. They have to accept their own mistakes and still try to move forward. They have to live with imperfections, bad luck, and compromise while making the most of the world as it is. They also have to accept that, although there may be respites, the struggle never really ends.

Plus, it is exposure to Greek myth and history brought to life, which may trigger intellectual curiosity. And there are settings all over the U.S., from DC to the New Mexico desert, which may trigger a healthy bit of wanderlust. Good, positive stuff. Highly recommended as books that they can be shared between kids and parents to the benefit of both.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)
The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3)
The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)
The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5)
The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide)