WBBT: Friday
Girl Overboard: Justina Chen Headley

WBBT: Rick Riordan Interview

I'm pleased to welcome Rick Riordan for his only stop on the Winter Blog Blast Tour. Rick is the author of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series: The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and The Titan's Curse. Book 4 in the series, The Battle of the Labyrinth, is scheduled for publication in May of 2008, and is eagerly awaited by kids everywhere. The Percy Jackson books are among my favorite books, and are my top recommendation for middle grade/middle school readers who are looking for adventure stories.

Rick is also the author of the Tres Navarre series, an adult mystery series about a private investigator who is based in San Antonio, Texas, and the standalone suspense novel Cold Springs. Titles in the Tres Navarre series include (in order): Big Red Tequila, The Widower's Two-Step, The Last King of Texas, The Devil Went Down to Austin, Southtown, Mission Road, and the recently published Rebel Island.

I was a fan of the Tres Navarre series first, exchanging titles in the series with a friend from Austin. When I learned, around the time of starting my blog, that Rick had written a title for kids, I scooped it up right away. You can read my Lightning Thief review (one of the very reviews that I ever posted) here. I knew right off that these books were something special.

The Percy Jackson books blend fast-paced, modern day adventures with Greek Mythology. The premise is that the Greek gods are still around, being immortal and all, and that they periodically connect with human partners to produce Half-Blood children. These Half-Bloods have special gifts, but also face unique challenges (like being targeted by monsters, and being prone to dyslexia and ADHD). The Lightning Thief existed first as a series of bedtime stories that Rick, a middle school history teacher at the time, told his older son. Fortunately for us, Rick's sons encouraged him to write the stories down. And the rest is history.

On his blog, Myth & Mystery, Rick is an outspoken advocate for publishing books that are enjoyable for kids to read (see also here), and books that will appeal to boys and girls. He's also passionate about making books accessible and interesting to kids who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and about the need to mentor teachers to stay in school. He describes his experiences, with his wife Becky, in homeschooling his older son, Haley (here's the post about why they decided to undertake the great home-schooling experiment). He even published a multi-part short story about the half-blood universe on the blog (part 1, part 2, part 3), to help tide fans over until the next book is ready. I've asked Rick to comment on some of these topics in this interview, and also asked a few questions about the Percy Jackson series. As you'll see, he's been very generous in his responses.

Q: I've been a fan of your books since before the Percy Jackson books were even available. I love the Texas authenticity that you bring to the Tres Navarre series, and the hard-edged plots. I won't go into details about the Tres series for this audience, but I do wonder if you could comment on the challenges of writing books for kids vs. books for adults. Which is harder? Which is more fun? Is it difficult to shift gears to switch between one and the other?

I enjoy writing for adults and kids, though over the last few years I have discovered I'm better at writing for kids. I suppose that's because of my background as a school teacher. I know the young audience much better than I know adult readers. Or perhaps it's because I never grew up myself. My wife would be the first to tell you that!

Conventional wisdom seems to say that writing for kids is easier than writing for adults. At least I've heard a lot of adult writers say, "Oh, I should write a kids' book. How hard could that be?" I certainly have not found that to be the case. If anything, writing for kids is more demanding, because kids are a tougher audience. They don't have patience for extraneous information or long pointless descriptions. They will let you know if your narrative is getting off track! I have to run a tight ship when I'm writing a children's book. The payoff is tremendous, however. When kids get excited about a book, they get REALLY excited. They are not as reserved as adults.

And when I'm writing for kids, I get the sense that I am making a real impact on their lives. I love it when the Percy Jackson series turns kids into readers. The teacher in me just thinks that's the greatest reward possible. When I only wrote adult mysteries, people would often ask me why I didn't quit teaching, and I would always say that I'd make more of an impact as a teacher than I ever would with mystery novels. Now, writing Percy Jackson, that equation has changed. I'm still teaching, but as an author, and my "classroom" has hundreds of thousands of kids in it!

As for switching gears, yes it can be tough sometimes remembering what world I'm inhabiting, but the skill set for creating an adult mystery and a YA fantasy is pretty much the same for me. I tend to write in simple compact sentences with punchy dialogue and lots of action. I tend to use first person. I like humor and quirky characters. That's true of all my work - for adults or kids.

Q: You've talked how the Percy Jackson series stemmed from your attempts to keep your older son interested in Greek Mythology, at a time when he was having some difficulties getting excited about school. And I know that you are very focused on writing books that will engage reluctant readers of both genders. Were you a reluctant reader yourself when you were a kid? Or does this come more from your experiences as a teacher and parent? Do you have any advice for other parents or teachers around getting reluctant readers interested in books?

Oh lord, yes. I was a very reluctant reader until I hit middle school. I remember other kids being excited about reading incentive programs in elementary school, like 'read twenty books and get a gold sticker!' That just left me cold. I liked comic books and looking at photos in nonfiction books, but the idea of reading a novel was just too daunting. I would get bored easily. Nothing grabbed me. In middle school, I discovered the Lord of the Rings, and that was the first thing that I read for pleasure, but I couldn't find anything else as good. (The same complaint many kids have today after finishing Harry Potter.)  I had a great English teacher in eighth grade who found out I liked Lord of the Rings and showed me how all the archetypes in Tolkien came from Norse mythology. That opened my eyes to mythology, and I've been a mythology fan ever since. It didn't make me receptive to the kind of books we typically teach in school, however.

Even in high school, I avoided the required books. I basically faked my way through every English class by listening to discussions. I was a good writer, so I could give the teacher a decent essay without ever having read the book. I didn't read a single required text in high school. Of course, my karmic punishment was that I became an English major. I had to go back in college and read all that stuff they tell you to read in high school.

Anyway, this very much informed my attitude as a teacher and later as a writer. I have great sympathy for reluctant readers, because I was one. When a kid says a school book is boring . . . I don't automatically discount that. Sometimes, the student needs to build up his patience and learn to appreciate literature. But sometimes he's right. The book IS boring. My goal as an English teacher was very simple: Each student should leave my class with a more positive attitude about reading and writing. They should feel successful and enthusiastic. They should have at least one experience where they read a book they simply couldn't put down. If I couldn't provide that, it hardly matters whether they have learned to recognize a metaphor or Classical allusion. If you look at statistics, it's painfully clear that we are losing kids as readers. The older they get, the less they read. Is that just because they are spending more time on MySpace? I don't think that's the whole answer. I think it has a lot more to do with what we expect them to read. The older they get, the more painful reading becomes in school. It stops being fun. It starts being work. I think that's a shame. I wish we could get away from the canon of great literature "must reads" and allow young readers some latitude to find books that actually speak to them. As Mark Twain famously observed, a classic is a book everyone agrees is great but no one has read.

As a parent, I have two boys who are also reluctant readers. Fortunately, they've made some amazing strides in the last few years. Haley, my dyslexic son, will now sit for hours when he gets involved with a book, forgetting that he only needs to read thirty minutes a day. Patrick and I have a great time reading together and discovering new fantasies. Both boys help me with my manuscripts. We will sit on the bed together whenever I've finished a new book and they'll let me read it to them. I'll find out very quickly which parts are funny, which parts are confusing, which parts need to be tweaked.

My biggest advice to parents: get involved with your kids' reading. Read with them. There is no such thing as being too old for reading aloud! Find out what they're interested in and let them pursue it. Make friends with a librarian or a local bookseller. Expect your children to have a reading time at home every day, but let them decide what they will read. Model this behavior by being a reader yourself! If you're too busy to read, guess what . . . your children will be too. And don't worry if your child isn't reading Harry Potter when she's five, or War and Peace when she's in eighth grade. This isn't a race. It isn't for bragging rights. It's about getting connected with a good story, and learning to become a lifelong reader and learner.

Q: The Percy Jackson books have won lots of awards and honors (I was personally thrilled when the Lightning Thief was the first pick for Al Roker's Book Club for Kids on the Today Show). I've seen you write about this a bit on your blog, but I wanted to ask you here: What do you think are the attributes that make a "best book for kids"?

To me, it's pretty simple. Do kids enjoy it? Does it make them want to read more? Does it make them run down to the library and say, "What else have you got by this author? What other books do you have like this one?" Now that's a good book for kids.

Not every book works for every kid. That's a good thing, because it keeps more of us authors in business! It's great that we have a wide variety of books for kids to read. I truly believe that we're in the middle of a YA literature Renaissance right now. So many wonderful books out there! The publishers are willing to take a chance on new voices. They have decided kids will read if you just connect them to a book they love.

The only time I get worried is when adults push books that seem written for adults under the thin guise of being a "children's book." I know, as a child, I learned very quickly to run away from any book that sported an award medal, because that book was likely to bore the pants off me. My students, more often than not, had the same reaction whenever I tried to recommend an award-winning title. The kids would say, "Um, no thanks, have you got any other Harry Potter books?" The parents, on the other hand, would see it as a seal of approval. I even remember one colleague trying to prove how rigorous she was as an English teacher by telling me, "Oh, I don't allow my students to read the silver medal books. Only the gold medals are good enough!"  I wonder how many of her students are big readers today? To be fair, I am not knocking every award-winning title by any means. There are many wonderful award books. However, I think the mark of a true award-winner is a book that manages to be both brilliant and accessible to kids.

Q: You seem to do a lot of school visits. Do you have any advice for new authors on making school visits successful?

School visits are wonderful! It's a win-win situation. The author gets to promote his or her books. The students get the chance to meet a real writer and get an inside look at the writing process. I wish we'd had author visits when I was a kid. I had the advantage of teaching middle school for a long time before I started doing author visits, and it was immensely helpful.

Being in front of a young audience was second nature to me. For writers who are just starting down that road, I would start small and local. Find some librarians and English teachers who are willing to have you come in. Talk to individual classrooms first, then work your way up to large assemblies. Try to engage the kids. Keep the presentation short, interesting, interactive, and if possible funny! I like to bring a lot of visuals and show-and-tell items like manuscripts and cover art. I play a Greek mythology game and give out little prizes. Practice your presentation, and if the kids like you, word will quickly spread. Other schools will start inviting you.

Q: I think that one of the best things about Percy Jackson as a character (besides his humorous voice) is the way he turns his ADHD into a positive force, and the way his dyslexia is a side effect of this whole cool thing by which he's a half-blood. Have you had a lot of feedback from kids who have ADHD or dyslexia about the books?

My son was the model for Percy, since he's ADHD/dyslexic. My father is also dyslexic, a fact he did not discover until he was an adult. So clearly, the condition runs in the family. I doubt I'm fully dyslexic, but I do have some of the markers, and it may be one reason I came so late to reading. I am still a very slow reader and an indifferent speller at best.

The thing about dyslexia/ADHD is that these conditions turn into strengths later in life. ADHD/dyslexic kids tend to be extremely articulate and fun to be around. Above all, they are creative thinkers, because they have been forced to find unorthodox ways to solve problems their entire school career.

This makes them highly valuable employees once they find a career that engages their interest. I've gotten many emails and letters from dyslexics and their parents. One child told me she now wears her dyslexia as a badge of honor. Another parent told me that her child was told he would never be able to read a book. A few months later, he discovered Percy Jackson and was reading all night under the covers until he finished the series! Another child without learning disabilities said she was really bummed not to have dyslexia, and was is okay for her to be a half-blood anyway!

Q: I know that the Percy Jackson series as a whole is inspired by and immersed in Greek Mythology. Are the specific characters of the half-bloods in the book (Percy, Annabeth, Thalia, etc.) inspired by any existing myths, or did they spring from your more modern-day experiences?

The main characters in the series are not based on mythological characters or on any particular people in real life. They are more composites of many different children I've taught over the years. Percy, Annabeth, Thalia, Clarisse - really all the campers - are kids I know well, because I've spent a lot of time with middle schoolers. I appreciate their sense of humor. I feel for their embarrassment and frustration. I love their enthusiasm and their quirkiness.

Q: I don't like to ask too many book-related questions, because I'm strongly anti-spoiler. But I can't resist asking: Will we see Rachel Elizabeth Dare again?

I love this question, because it tells me that I did something right! Yes, Rachel Elizabeth Dare was not just a random encounter. You will definitely be seeing her again.

Q: Potentially related question: will we see more romance in the last two books of the series, as the half-bloods get older?

Not giving anything away, but yes, as the characters get older, this issue will certainly come up. After all, Aphrodite in book three promised she would do her best to make things interesting for Percy in the romance department . . . and that can't be good!

Q: Can you tell us any thing about Percy 4?

Very little! The book is top secret. There will be no advance reader copies, and booksellers will be required to sign affidavits that they cannot sell the book before the release date of May 6. I will reveal the title and the cover in Publisher's Weekly (and on my website) on Oct. 4. Until then, I can only hint that the plot involves the most dangerous place in all of Greek mythology - the Labyrinth. (Editor's note: This interview took place in late September. See the Book 4 announcement here and here.)

Q: What cabin would you live in, if you were at Camp Half-Blood?

Oh Hermes, definitely. That's where all the action is!

Q: And one final, frivolous question: What would the music sound like for you, if you were at a party on Olympus? And what would ambrosia taste like?

Music on Olympus would probably sound strangely like the Grateful Dead. Ambrosia would taste like fresh corn tortillas with a little butter and homemade salsa.

I could go on all day, but I know that you're very busy. And I, for one, would hate to pull you away from too much time that could be spent working on Percy's further adventures. Thanks so much for your time! I can't wait to read Book 4.

Further reading:

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.