My wife and I recently attended a book fair at a local town hall. It was amazing. Before you even entered the hall proper, you were met with six tables of classics sitting in boxes in the entrance room. Upon entering the hall, we were struck with tables upon tables, rows upon rows of fiction, non-fiction and (curiously enough) sheet music. We spent a bit of money and walked away with armfuls of novels. (Read about the book fair on my wife’s blog here). Within the small mound were some titles that I picked up for my bookshelf at work (I’m a high school English teacher) and among those titles was Rick Riordan’s favourite Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.
Percy Jackson tells the tale of the titular character’s journey across the United States. Percy is a pretty average kid, who discovers that he is a demigod and like his namesake, Perseus, must go on a quest to save his family and prevent a war. The crux of the novel is that Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen and Perseus needs to recover it with the help of his friends Grover and Annabeth, a satyr and daughter of Athena respectively. The novel weaves Greek Myth with a modern day United States setting with surprising ease. I was struck by just how much detail Riordan went into when adapting myths for a contemporary audience and found that I was learning a lot about Attic culture along the way.
I was unsurprised to learn that the Percy Jackson Series is more popular among young teenage boys than Harry Potter. While the latter may have a much more universal appeal, there is something about a young man on a quest to save his mother and banish monsters and prove himself to his father that appealed to my young-teenage-boy-side. In my Year 8 class there are a few kids who have read and re-read all the books, regularly watch the film adaptation/s and sometimes even quiz each other on Percy Jackson trivia.
There is no romantic sub-plot in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, which seems to be the marker of fantasy aimed at boys. It may sound like a reductionist thing to say but young-adult fantasy with a female protagonist and a love story is mostly aimed at girls, while those with a male protagonist and a love story is gender-neutral and the few novels with a male protagonist and no love story are aimed at boys. I have no problem with this particular formula; especially since novels like Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson all have protagonists aged 11 or 12 so a romance of any substance simply isn’t going to happen for them. What I do have a problem with is the fact that of the ‘Top 100 Young Adult Releases’, according to goodreads.com, 98 have female protagonists and 90 of those stories have a romance as a primary storyline. Which means that of the high quality literature being released only 2% is aimed at boys.
That’s why I think novels like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief are so important. It is a tale that is unashamedly targeting boys and is still written with sophistication and intelligence. It doesn’t dilute themes or pander to a clichéd notion of what boys are like. I was particularly impressed that the book read like a novel rather than a screenplay. There was character development and vistas were created with all five senses rather than simply being visual in nature. The novel is so well written that it will appeals to girls as well as boys but it was refreshing to read a tale that targeted males in a thoughtful and intellectual manner.