Reading Rights: The “Percy Jackson Problem” and Me

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Reading Percy Jackson at home — An Epic Education

A nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation…the literate and illiterate.

Jim Trelease

There are various schools of thought when it comes to getting your child to read. Personally, I believe that reading doesn’t need to be taught. Sure, my spawn need special attention and guidance when it comes to writing, spelling and grammar, but actual reading comes naturally if you provide kids with enough time to read and enough material that interests them. The author Neil Gaiman has it right: any reading is good reading. Well, let’s say “almost” any reading, ok? Just in case the kids ever ask me to read Mein Kampf, OJ Simpson’s memoir or some of Aleister Crowley’s diaries before bed. But seriously: Gaiman was talking about letting kids read whatever their interests and passions lead them to: comic books, pulp novels, the sports pages, video game instructions, Minecraft tutorials, whatever. If they’re interested, they’ll learn, he says, and the worst way to get kids to read is to force it upon them:

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

If you read any link in this post, this speech by Gaiman is it.

Reading Percy Jackson Bali airport — An Epic EducationOne of the biggest challenges for our family in this leap into homeschooling was getting M and S reading in English. When we left Tokyo, both kids were on-level in Japanese, but neither could read at a corresponding level in English. Not even close. For a homeschooling dad, this is a problem. There are plenty of websites written in Japanese, but with a working knowledge of English, our laptops become a classroom that would only be found in science fiction a generation ago. That’s why my first priority was to get the kids’ English reading and writing abilities to a point that matched their English speaking and listening abilities, which were much further ahead. We printed worksheets. We utilized Reading Rainbow and other iPad apps. We kept journals similar to how roadschooling doyen Jenn Miller outlines here.

I also read with them every day: usually around an hour before bed, but occasionally after breakfast or lunch, as well. I did a some captive reading when they were younger, but not nearly enough, so I’m making up for it. Most of the books we’ve read in the past year are from the Percy Jackson series, a line of books for teens/tweens that I stumbled upon by accident last November. I ran across the movie one afternoon and decided to watch it with the kids on a whim. Often considered “Harry Potter for Greek Mythology,” the series introduces Perseus Jackson, a snarky American teen who abruptly discovers that he is a demigod: the child of a mortal and a god — in his case, a son of Poseidon, the ancient Greek lord of the sea. Jackson and his friends — children of Zeus, Athena, Hades and other Olympians — save the world countless times, all while the mortal world goes about their lives completely unaware.

Reading Percy Jackson in the Perhentian Islands: An Epic EducationOur kids loved the movie, and a week or so later we saw the books in a shop. Little did I know how popular the books were to become, or that nearly one year later we would still be reading about Jackson and company, finishing 12 books in total. We’ve dragged each volume — usually over 500 pages — to various Southeast Asian locales, reading together in airports, on beaches and aboard boats. At the onset, my goal was to find some children’s book series that would draw my kids into the world of reading, and man-o-man, I found it. We’re now halfway through the final book, and M, who is now 8, is several chapters ahead of us because she can’t wait to see what will happen next.

The series has been nothing but a positive force in our family, feeding the kids’ passion for reading and stirring a curiosity of the classics, which is why I found this piece in the New Yorker so extraordinarily off-putting. Titled “The Percy Jackson Problem,” the author expresses her concern that the series is too lowbrow for kids, and that it could actually deter children from reading more sophisticated literature in the future. I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, and despite the occasional snobbery and elitist concerns of some of their writers, I remain a longtime subscriber. I could attempt a breakdown of the author’s conceit, but so many have already done such a really great job of it that adding to the critique would just feel like piling on. Besides, the target of her concerns is almost certainly not my crew: two ESL, homeschooled, multi-cultural kids at no risk of polluting the academic well of whatever million-dollar boarding school her brood may attend.

Reading as we wait: An Epic EducationInstead of a critique, I’ll just stick to the anecdotal and relay what I’ve seen happen with our children, who a year ago weren’t anywhere near reading on the same level as their American peers. Both kids have made reading part of their day, both in Japanese and English (we drive to Kuala Lumpur for Japanese kids books). Since starting the series, both kids have gone on to pursue topics such as the the Greek and Roman empire, as well as the fall of Troy. For road trips, we’ve listened to audiobook versions of the Odyssey (unabridged) as well as the original Greek myths being retold by Bernard Evslin and D’Aulaires. Their eyes light up every time a god or hero they know from enters the saga. In addition, I’ve heard our girl M attempting — often successfully — to use words that she first encountered in the books. Words like vivacious, impenetrable, reluctant, perplexed, tentative and intriguing. My only regret about reading the series is that we’re not in the Mediterranean now, when the kids are at peak fascination with the Acropolis, Ithaca and aqueducts.

They both still have some way to go in their dive into English, but their reading abilities have leapt dramatically forward from 12 short months ago. In fact, it’s quite possible that M has surpassed her older brother at the moment, for a few reasons: for one, he still prefers to read Japanese books, but it also seems that she has an appetite for reading that is beyond anything I could have asked for.  I don’t want to exaggerate their abilities — indeed, their writing, spelling and typing still lag considerably — but I cannot overstate how the world of a snarky teenage demigod has drawn my kids into the world of books, and has exemplified the power of letting kids read what they want. If that’s the “Percy Jackson problem,” then I’d like more problems like that in my life.

Comments

  1. ‘Well-meaning adults….’ So, right on with the quote and the post, Mr. Jenkin’s!

    I also think it was Harry Potter that set Fiona off into ‘this reading stuff is cool’ land – and she’s never looked back. Her love of reading was her own!
    In fact, yesterday while purchasing a new phone accessory, she was telling the sales rep about the number of books she’s read (at 9), and he said, “Man!!! I haven’t read that much, and I’m about to graduate from college right now!”
    I was like…..oh yeah.

    • Nice one, Mike. Yeah, it feels good not only when they like to read but when they *brag* about it, or rather when they get so excited about it that they want to talk about what they’re reading with anyone who will listen. Good stuff. Great to hear from you, man.

  2. I agree too. Making reading a priority everyday is an essential part of becoming a fluent, lifelong reader. Some kids just have a natural love of reading while others need some extra motivation. About 7 years ago I read the whole Harry Potter series to my reluctant reader daughter over 2 years. She has since reread the whole series at least 3 times. My almost 9 year old son is just attempting The Lightning Thief due to his best friend’s current obsession with Percy Jackson. I’m hoping this will be his trigger to read for fun rather than the nightly 25 minute required reading homework.
    Also, once Felicia has finished the PJ series, she might be interested in The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games). Another set of exciting adventure books suitable for her age group:) The first book of the series is called “Gregor the Overlander”.

    • Hi Angie! Yes, we’ve considered the Harry Potter books, but I’ll follow their lead. We read the Hobbit while we waited for the last PJ book to come out, and there has been some talk of reading Lord of the Rings. Fine with me: I never read them as a child, so I’m keen, and I’m pleasantly surprised that they want to read them as the English is more challenging for them, but if they say the word than I am there. Oh, and the other books sound great, too! Will definitely seek them out. The funny thing about all the Percy Jackson “problem” was that I had no idea how popular they were until this New Yorker piece came out!

  3. Couldn’t agree more.

    Two in our house just finished the most recent book, within about 48 hours of getting it. They take the books out to the woods behind the house and read for literally hours at a stretch. I wish I had had something similar at their age, rather than being forced to read Great Expectations, which (while I *now* recognize for the classic it of course is) was a slog and nearly killed my desire to read anything.

    They’re also now collaborating on a Minecraft Camp Halfblood, but that’s a story for another day.

    • Hey Simon! Exactly: I don’t want to stop their desire to read before it starts. Minecraft Camp Halfblood, eh? We may be taking the plunge into Minecraft in the next few months…may be seeking that camp out…

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