Friday, October 24, 2014

On Percy Jackson: A Response to Rebecca Mead

Earlier this year, Ruth Graham of Slate Magazine denounced young adult literature--and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars in particular--for offering what she saw as substandard material, a criticism that was couched in a greater denunciation of the adults who actively read YA books over other, more "literary" offerings by writers like John Updike and Willa Cather. Now, a few months later, another prominent magazine--this time the New Yorker, perhaps the nation's most renowned venue for literature and criticism--has published an article on YA literature, only this time the object of criticism is Rick Riordan, and the writer bases much of her opinion on firsthand observations of her son, a Riordan fanatic. Thankfully, Mead's article does not embrace the same arrogant tone that so feverishly dripped from Graham's, and much of what Mead has to say seems derived from a deep and honest belief in the importance of literature for young children and teenagers. In fact, her article devotes its opening paragraphs to a summary of two opposing camps--those who believe children benefit from reading anything, and those who believe that learning can only come from through the reading of more "literary" fare--but as she continues, Mead quickly embraces Graham's close-minded attitude towards the former, and her reasoning devolve into arrogance.

As someone who spends much of his day surrounded by both teenagers and books, not to mention teenagers reading--or refusing to read--said books, I feel compelled to offer my own insight into this argument over the works of Rick Riordan and, to a lesser extent, young adult literature in general. As a high school English teacher, I've had more than a few opportunities to become acquainted with not only the works of Mr. Riordan but the original myths upon which his novels are based; last year, I even forced myself to read one of Riordan's myth-based books, though not the Percy Jackson volumes Mead focuses on. Instead, it was The Red Pyramid, 540-page work based on Egyptian mythology rather than Greek or Roman, but nonetheless consistent with the focus of Mead's complaints.

I'll be honest, I didn't finish the book. I got halfway through it--I can't even remember what most of it was about--and had to set it aside for good. Riordan may sell a lot of books, and he may have a rabid fanbase, but his ability to craft a fluid and engaging narrative wasn't strong enough for me. The chances of me picking up anything else written by Riordan are pretty slim, though I suppose I could be convinced. But what separates me from Mead in this area is that, unlike her, I recognize that my interests cannot--and should not--have any bearing over what other people read, especially when it's something they want to read. If my students, many of whom like Riordan's books, read him with the same level of passion and focus that I have when reading, say, the newest Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King, then any opinion I have about his skills should be left unexpressed on my part. If a student ever asked for my reaction to his books, I'd be honest and tell them exactly what I've just written here--that I tried once, a while back, didn't enjoy it, stopped halfway through, and moved on--but I would never go so far as to try and dissuade them from reading him. I'd encourage their reading, even tell them I hoped they would enjoy the book, and end by saying I looked forward to hearing about it at an SSR conference later that quarter. Which--and I'm not lying here--would be the complete and honest truth.

Where Mead and I also differ--and this is perhaps Mead's biggest problem--is on the book she recommends in place of the Percy Jackson series, which is D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Written by a husband-and-wife team and published more than 50 years ago, the D'Aulaires' collection takes its readers through the most famous and important myths, many of which are retold--in much different fashion--in Riordan's own series, only the D'Aulaires did so without the addition of an overarching story concerning teenagers at summer camp. In extolling the virtues of this book, Mead acknowledges its age, though she holds that aspect of it up as a positive--the language is more poetic, she says, and contrasts it to lingo- and pop-culture-heavy quotes from Riordan's work, a rhetorical tactic I will address momentarily--and admits that most children, when given a choice, would opt for Riordan's versions, which she attributes to its "irresistibly cool" language.

Which is a revelation that, for someone who is supposedly familiar with literature and literary criticism, demonstrates a near disqualifying level of unfamiliarity with how literature actually works. The "irresistibly cool" language Mead so easily dismisses--you can almost feel her eyes rolling as you read the words--is not some strange second language introduced by an alien race to corrupt the spotless legacy of Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner. It's how people talk today. Very rarely does anyone in this day and age--children, teenagers, middle-aged parents, senior citizens--speak like a Greek hero, or even in the dull, manufactured tone of the D'Aulaires' collection, which reads as though it's been polished and revised by an entire college English Department.

Earlier in that same paragraph, Mead denounces Riordan's incorporation of "obsolescence"--Craigslist, iPhones, Powerball, all of which she feels date his novels--even though, in a preceding sentence, she quotes the opening lines to the D'Aulaires' book, which mentions shepherds and herdsmen, two professions that are so rare these days, or at least appear in radically different forms, that they themselves could be seen as dating their source material in much the same way. (Furthermore, the original Greek myths as retold by the D'Aulaires mention smiths, chariot-drivers, and a slew of other mortal professions that would be foreign to modern students.)

Besides teaching students who read--and discuss, and recommend--Riordan's books, I've also had the chance over the last few years to teach myths taken directly from the D'Aulaire's collection, which I've used to both prepare my students for The Odyssey (English 9) and help them understand how various myths from across the world share common themes, ideas, and characters (World Literature & Composition). This experience provides me with what I would consider the ultimate proof against Mead's argument that students would find the literary and refined work of the D'Aulaires more beneficial than the work of Riordan and his ilk:  the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths is boring.* Every student of mine who has been handed a chapter from any of their mythology books and told to read it has found it unworthy, not because it might be inferior to anything else I could have offered them, but because it was written in a different time for a different population. It is like handing students a typewriter and telling them it's just as equal to the Chromebook or iPad they have in their lockers. It doesn't mean the typewriter is a horrible object, or that we should disdain or ignores its importance; its simply the relic of older times, significant in its day, but not something that has any true and immediate relevance in the lives of young people.

Which is the truth of literature:  it changes. Mead criticizes Riordan for taking these prized myths, which have lasted for millennia, and besmirching them with modern-day references, a cliched storyline involving teenage protagonists, substandard paraphrasing, and lackluster prose. But Riordan is simply following the lead of those very same men and women who, thousands of years ago, began telling their own stories...which they, in turn, had adapted from stories they themselves had been told. When you study world literature, you understand that these stories, regardless of where they come from, all share such an incredible number of similarities that believing they arose spontaneously and without outside influence--without the fingerprints of a premodern globalization--is a mark of arrogance and stupidity. Riordan may be far from a lasting writer--he is this generation's S.E. Hinton, its Carolyn Keene, destined for dollar-bins and garage sales, as is ninety-nine percent of all books published today, or ever--but he's basing his work on the very same mythology that both borrowed from and lent to other storytelling traditions. By reading Riordan, young readers aren't just entertaining themselves, escaping into a fantastic alternate reality, or engaging with relatable characters--they're participating in a tradition as old as the stories themselves.

That my seem like a lofty and hyperbolic statement, especially in response to a poorly developed article by someone who seems to have forgotten what it means to be young and interested in books. In fact, if I were to guess, I'd say there are articles out there somewhere, perhaps buried in the reels of old newspaper microfilm, in which some respectable critic from mid-century bemoans how the D'Aulaires took such prized myths, made them accessible by children, and presented them with dozens of illustrations. After all, that was the era of Edith Hamilton's dense, virtually inaccessible Mythology book, and to present any form of classical literature in such an edited fashion would have surely stoked the ire of the Old Guard. If that person had existed, it seems as though Mead and her parents had little issue ignoring them, just as millions of readers today will have no problem ignoring the ridiculous concerns of people like Mead, who would be better served reading more of these books rather than wringing their hands over children who seek them out. Or not. After all, Mead can read whatever the hell she wants--it's her right as a reader, after all, just as it's the right of her own child and children everywhere.

*Just to be clear, I'm not saying I don't think people should avoid the D'Aulaires' book, or that it shouldn't be taught. I'm only saying that, in attempting to denounce one book while elevating another, Mead has replaced the subjectivity and democracy of readership with her own biased ideas about which is better, and what books we should be reading over others.