Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

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Three years ago I was teaching mythology as part of my literature genre curriculum.  A student walked up to me at lunch and handed me the first book in the Percy Jackson series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief).  He stated that he thought this might be a good book to read for the class.  I started reading it myself during our Silent Reading time that day, and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it that evening.  The novel was so good, I decided to use it as a read-aloud a few months later when we would be studying fantasy novels.  As the class progressed through the book, I noticed something remarkable.  Students began to take the book out of the library to read ahead.  At this point the second and third books were published, and students began to bring in those books from both their school and public libraries.  When books were finished, students shared them with their classmates.  Soon the fourth book was printed, and although it wasn’t in paperback students were convincing their parents to buy it.  I heard Greek words like “Ergo!” and “Di Immortalis!” become part of their everyday conversations. One student told me that this was the first book he had ever finished that a teacher didn’t make him read.

I attribute the appeal of this series and the fervour my students experienced to Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson.  A former middle school teacher, Riordan created a series that appeals to the imagination and sarcastic wit of young adolescents.  The main character, Percy Jackson, is a struggling student with dyslexia and ADHD who has been kicked out of every school he has attended.  We eventually learn that Percy is a demigod, and the son of Poseidon, as the Greek gods are real and are still affecting the lives of humans in modern society.  In The Lightning Thief, the first book of the series, Percy has to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt, and he goes with his new friends Grover and Annabeth on a cross-country quest.  Along with great references to Greek mythology updated for modern times (example: the protagonists get trapped in the Lotus Casino, an update of the Lotus-Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey), Riordan also provides Percy with a humour that his middle school audience would appreciate.  For example, as Percy comes face to face with Hades, and sees his robes decorated with the flickering faces of doomed spirits, he wonders “…whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way.  What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?”

The subsequent four books in the Percy Jackson series proceed in much the same way, where we are taken with Percy as he moves through his various quests.  We also see him evolve as a character, as he struggles with decisions regarding his destiny and the protection of his friends.  These themes provide another layer of thinking for students, as they form opinions regarding Percy’s and the gods’ decisions.  Rick Riordan’s website is a very useful resource for educators, even including downloads of teacher guides and discussion questions for the first three Percy Jackson books.

I have to mention that the Percy Jackson movie is nothing like the books, and those who have read the series will be quite disappointed by the movie.  After using The Lightning Thief as a read-aloud again this year, a few teachers and myself took our students on a field trip to see the movie.  The bus ride back to the school and the time before the dismissal bell was one long discussion of what should have been in the movie and why certain events from the book were left out completely.  One student at the back of the bus, who was already on the fourth book, kept calling out, “But keep reading the books!  Don’t stop!  The Percy Jackson books are great!”  When students show this much enthusiasm for a series, it is certainly worth a try to introduce it into the classroom.

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