Talking with Rick Riordan

Book Links May 2009 (vol. 18, no. 5)

By Jeanette Larson

The author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series talks about his runaway best-sellers as well as what’s next.

Elementary school through middle school

Rick Riordan’s first success as an author came from writing adult mysteries featuring a hard-boiled San Antonio detective. Riordan also taught middle school while writing these titles, and it concerned him that his students often wanted to read his books, which were not age-appropriate. He also recognized that both of his sons were reluctant readers and wanted to encourage them to read more. Inspired by one son’s reading difficulties, Riordan began to create stories about Percy Jackson, a young demigod who comes from a dysfunctional family. He chose mythology because that was the only subject that his son found enjoyable.

The Lightning Thief may have started as a story created to reach one reader, but it quickly became one of the most popular books of 2005 and was selected for Al Roker’s Book Club for Kids. Each book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has been met with popular and critical acclaim, and the series has garnered an almost cult following.

In 2008 Scholastic released Riordan’s groundbreaking The Maze of Bones, the first title in the 39 Clues series, which offers a multiplatform, cross-media reading experience. Riordan was selected to outline the story arc for the series and write the first of what will be 10 books. A longtime fan of Riordan’s mysteries, I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his books for young readers.

JL: Tell us a bit about your background. What were you like growing up?
RIORDAN: I was a reluctant reader. I didn’t like books until I got into junior high and discovered mythology and fantasy. That’s also when I decided to become a writer. I sent in my first story at age 13. It was promptly rejected, but I kept trying.

JL: You started out writing mysteries for adults. How did you end up switching to writing for children? Did the experience of writing mysteries help you with plotting and writing the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and the 39 Clues books?
RIORDAN: My oldest son was nine years old when he became interested in Greek mythology. He asked me to make up a new story for him. The Lightning Thief began as a bedtime story, and my son urged me to write it down. The next thing I knew, I was a children’s author. My early mysteries were definitely great practice for writing my young-adult books, especially The Maze of Bones, which is a YA thriller.

JL: How did your experience as a middle-school teacher help with your writing? What did your students teach you about writing for young people?
RIORDAN: Kids are a much tougher audience than adults. They won’t sit through a bunch of extraneous information. The writer has to get to the point quickly and hold the reader’s attention. I always imagine myself reading my own book aloud in fifth period, right after lunch. If you can hold the attention of a classroom in fifth period, you’re doing something right.

JL: The Percy Jackson and the Olympians books have been so popular. What do you think attracts readers to those stories? How do they connect with the characters?
RIORDAN: Mythology is a natural draw for kids. It has magic, mystery, adventure—everything you could want. I try to mix in the modern with the ancient and use plenty of humor. Basically, I try to structure my books the way I structured my classroom—to always keep the kids engaged.

JL: What kind of research did you have to do to get the mythology correct and still make everything appropriate for the twenty-first century?
RIORDAN: I’ve been reading mythology for years, but I still brush up on the lesser-known facts using Web sites and reference books. One great Web site for mythology buffs is Theoi Greek Mythology ( www.theoi.com), which profiles gods and other characters from Greek mythology.

JL: Have you seen or heard about an increased interest in mythology since the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books came out?
RIORDAN: I hear from librarians all the time that the 200 section is getting a real workout these days. That’s fantastic!

JL: If you could be any Greek god, whom would you choose and why?
RIORDAN: I’d be Poseidon so I could control the sea. Plus, I think he has the coolest palace.

JL: Who would win in a battle between Percy Jackson and Harry Potter?
RIORDAN: Oh, no bets on that one. It would depend on who got the first shot. Greek heroes don’t get to use magic most of the time, sadly. It’s always the bad guy or the gods who have the magic in Greek mythology.

JL: What’s next for Percy Jackson?
RIORDAN: The final book in the series, The Last Olympian, will be released this month.

JL: Do you feel like an “overnight success”? How has all of the media attention affected your life and your work?
RIORDAN: An overnight success after 10 years as a published author! Nothing much has changed on a personal level except I’m a lot busier and I’m traveling more. I don’t think about the big picture much. I live for the individual encounters with kids who have become readers because they found the Percy books, or the e-mails from parents thanking me for writing the books. As a former teacher, that is just gold for me.

JL: Rather than resting on your laurels, you took on a new challenge. Although the 39 Clues series was conceived by Scholastic, how have you made it your own project?
RIORDAN: Scholastic had the general idea and then came to me to create the story arc. I fleshed out the cast of characters and decided on a historical focus for each book. It was a fascinating challenge, and I love the idea of making world history fun for kids.

JL: What makes the 39 Clues series a groundbreaking project? Where do you see the series going in the next few years, and how will the books sustain themselves for the next generation of readers if they are dependent on the multimedia platform and the game?
RIORDAN: Scholastic is excited about the series because it incorporates online gaming and trading cards with the books. Is that the future? Heck, I don’t know. I didn’t have much to do with the game or cards. My job as the writer was to make sure the books stood on their own, even if the reader never gets online. The response from kids so far has been very positive. We’ll see what happens.

JL: Have you ever played a mystery game like the one in the 39 Clues?
RIORDAN: Not really. The game Clue is about as close as I’ve come.

JL: What’s next for you?
RIORDAN: I’m working on a new fantasy adventure. Top secret—can’t tell you what it’s about. After that I’ll return to Camp Half-Blood for a new Greek mythology series featuring the next generation of demigods. That will make a lot more sense once people have read the ending of the Percy series. Readers will have a pretty good idea where the second series is heading.

Sampling Riordan

The Battle of the Labyrinth. 2008. 384p. Hyperion, $17.99 (9781423101468); paper, $7.99 (9781423101499). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 5–9. The fourth entry in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series follows 14-year-old Percy and his fellow demigod campers as they search the Labyrinth for its creator and battle the forces of evil.

The Last Olympian. 2009. 384p. Hyperion, $17.99 (9781423101475). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 5–9. Just as action-packed as its predecessors, the final entry in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series culminates in an all-out showdown on the streets of Manhattan.

The Lightning Thief. 2005. 384p. Hyperion, $17.95 (9780786856299); paper, $7.99 (9780786838653). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 5–9. In the first installment in the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series, Percy discovers his best friend is a satyr and is almost killed by a minotaur before his mother manages to get him to Camp Half-Blood, where he learns that Poseidon is his father.

The Maze of Bones. 2008. 224p. Scholastic, $12.99 (9780545090544). Also available in an audio edition from Scholastic.
Gr. 5–9. The first in a 10-book series, this mix of reading, online gaming, card-collecting, and even a grand-prize sweepstakes centers on a challenge to a rich woman’s heirs: either inherit one million dollars, or forgo the money and receive the first of 39 clues that will lead them on an around-the-world adventure.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Demigod Files. 2009. 160p. Hyperion, $12.95 (9781423121664). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 4–8. This illustrated collection of odds and ends about Percy Jackson and his world features short stories and interviews with campers.

The Sea of Monsters. 2006. 340p. Hyperion, $16.95 (9780786856862); paper, $7.99 (9781423103349). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 5–9. In the second book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Percy and his pals set off for the Sea of Monsters to save Grover and capture the Golden Fleece.

The Titan’s Curse. 2007. 384p. Hyperion, $17.95 (9781423101451); paper, $7.99 (9781423101482). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 5–9. In the third installment in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Percy and the other campers cross the country fighting monsters and trying to stay a step ahead of the foretelling of the Oracle.

Jeanette Larson is an independent children’s literature consultant and an adjunct professor at Texas Woman’s University.