Recent years have seen an incredible shift in publishing towards greater inclusivity and diversity, and at the forefront of that push has been author Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series. These books may be targeted for Middle Grade and Young Adult readers, but the stories– which follow teenagers as they interact with mythological gods– are rich with people of color, queer characters, neurodiversity, and more! These are truly books for readers of all ages.
We’re thrilled today to welcome Rick Riordan to our site to talk about the origins of Percy Jackson, the debate about what’s ‘appropriate’ in MG/YA books, and much more!
Thank you, Rick, for joining us today!
When you first started writing the Percy Jackson series, could you ever imagine what was to come? And did the success of that series change your writing plans in any way?
Not at all. Percy really was just a bedtime story for my son when he was feeling down about school, after getting diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Seeing himself in the story as Percy, seeing somebody like him who could do amazing things – that meant a lot to my son. That’s what representation is all about, of course, but at the time I was really only interested in an audience of one. I had no idea the story would resonate with so many people.
The success of the series did change my writing plans, yes. As I realized that I’d been given a big platform, it was important to me to expand the representation in my books. When I’m writing, I always think of my former students I taught in middle school. I want to honor them as best I can by letting them know I remember them and I see them. I want kids of all kinds to see themselves in my books. The expanding universe of demigods has given me the chance to do that, though it’s slow work adding new important characters, and I still have a long way to go.
How much research goes into each book, and what kind of research do you do to ensure that the diverse cultures and communities are well represented?
I read A LOT of ‘own voices’ narratives. I also depend on what I’ve learned over the years from people I know and respect – colleagues, friends, family, former students, fellow parents who represent various groups. Of course, no group is a monolith, so you will never be able to create a character that resonates as true to every reader of that representational group, but it’s still my responsibility to try my best to get it right. My guideline is that if I write from a place of empathy and respect, and treat each character as a fully realized human being, I will usually be not too far off. Of course, I make mistakes, and when I do, I try to correct them.
The more important and longer-term answer to representation in literature, of course, is that we support and raise up own voices authors to tell their own stories. Yes, it’s important that I be inclusive, and I am committed to that, but clearly an old straight white dude is not going to get everything right or be the most powerful or authentic voice about any given form of representation. We need to hand to megaphone to writers who can tell their own stories. That’s why the imprint Rick Riordan Presents is about, but it’s only one piece in a big puzzle of changing the publishing industry.
The amount of diverse and varied characters in your books is astounding. Was it ever a struggle to be this inclusive? Either because you had to write a character who is wholly different from you or because of publishing bureaucracy?
I have to say Disney Publishing has always been totally supportive of my choices. I have never gotten any sort of push-back when it came to adding new characters who were LGBTQ+ or any other sort of representation. My editor’s only concern is that I get it right and be respectful, and she’s done all that she could to help me with that goal. Like I said, I draw on students I taught and other people I know as role models, so my inspiration is very personal. I know Alex Fierro and Nico di Angelo because I taught them. I know Emmie and Jo because they were parents of some of my students. Carter and Sadie Kane, biracial siblings who have to deal with how differently they look and are treated – they were in my class. Because of that, I never feel that I have to create a character out of the void that I don’t relate to. They are connected to me from the start, no matter how different their life experience is. I think the flipside of respecting diversity to respecting how alike we are, too. We are all human with the same needs and feelings. That sounds super corny, I guess, but it’s true.
I guess my only struggle is keeping up with changing thought and terminology in terms of how we think about things like race, or gender, or sexuality. Some things I wrote ten years ago, I would probably change now if I could. Ten years from now, I’ll probably feel the same about what I am writing now. But we are products of the times we live in. I just have to do my best to keep up, be open, and respect each person’s right to define themselves (or not define themselves) as they wish.
What are some Middle Grade and Young Adult books that are out now that you wish had been around when you were a kid?
Oh, wow. Pretty much everything? For starters, there was no Harry Potter. That really opened the floodgates of publishing to children’s literature and later the explosion of YA. We still have a long way to go in terms of representational fiction, but it is so much better now than when I was a kid, or even when I was a teacher back in the 1990s and early 2000s. I really struggled to find good books to put in my students’ hands that would speak to them and what they were going through. Now there is so much good stuff out there, and it’s so much easier to find.
There’s a lot of discussion about what is ‘appropriate’ for teenagers and pre-teens to read. Are there any topics that you feel are too dark or controversial to be included in MG/YA books?
Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready before it throws things at you. Kids know that as well as anybody. Most middle graders hate it when they feel like they’re being “protected” from life and coddled. I think all my stuff is very PG, nothing I would ever be worried about reading in the classroom if I was still a middle grade teacher. No curse words. (I think dammit is about the raciest word ever found in one of my books, and it only appears once, I believe.) No graphic violence. Cartoon violence, sure, but I try never to make it super R-rated gory. No depictions of sex beyond the occasional kiss or holding hands. Those are my basic no-no’s for middle grade.
But the idea that having a gay character exist in a book is ‘too adult’ for kids to read about . . . I’m sorry, that’s just stupid. How is being gay any more inherently ‘adult’ or ‘sexual’ than being heterosexual? When my oldest son was in Montessori school he had a classmate with two moms. He asked me why she had two moms and no dad. I told him that sometimes two women fall in love, or two men fall in love, and they decide to form a family, just like families with a mom and a dad. He said, “Oh, okay,” and we went about our day. That’s all he needed to know. He wasn’t traumatized. He wasn’t scarred for life. He didn’t magically become gay because of that information. Having different kinds of families in the community was no big deal to me, so it was no big deal to him. It would’ve been much more traumatizing if I’d tried to wait until he was sixteen to break the news that not everybody in the world was straight.
I think you can talk about anything in middle grade – life, death, love, whatever. It’s more about framing the subject in a way that is respectful of the reader and what they want and need to hear.
How important is it for you to take a break from the world of young demigods? Does taking breaks help to keep your writing fresh?
What is this thing you call a “break”? I have been going at the writing pretty relentlessly the last ten years or so, because I felt I had so many stories I wanted to tell and so many characters to introduce. I am taking a bit of a breather now, since I have wrapped up Magnus Chase for the present and have some time between Trials of Apollo books. It is nice! I’m taking some classes just for fun in history and language, and it’s helping to recharge the creative batteries. It’s important to take care of yourself, but that’s easy to say and hard for a workaholic like me to do!
If you could be the child of any mythical deity, who would you like to be related to?
I’d love to be related to Hermes because he has so many different aspects. I like that he’s a jack-of-all-trades. Plus he travels a lot and is in charge of communications – two things I like a lot!
Your new imprint with Disney, ‘Rick Riordan Presents’, debuts this year with three exciting and diverse books! What was the conversation that went on when you proposed this imprint, and what goals are you hoping to achieve over the first few years?
Well, Disney wanted to do an imprint with me, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like. I thought about it for quite a while, then started thinking about all the requests I’ve gotten over the years to do different mythologies like Chinese, West African, Mayan, Hindu, etc. I’m not an expert on those, though they are all fascinating, and it just seemed to me that I was the right author to tackle them. That’s where the idea came from to find ‘own voices’ authors to write their own stories based on their own heritage and folklore. They write what they want, with a goal of appealing to middle grade readers with humor, action and mythical elements kind of like I did with Percy Jackson but in their own way and their own voice. Then I do everything I can to promote them and bring those books to a wider audience. The imprint is SO much fun and the reception has been phenomenal. We are planning about four books a year. So much great stuff still to come!
And that’s a good note to end on, because we have some of the books from the new Rick Riordan Presents line to give away (see below).
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Rick! We can’t wait to see what incredible stories you share with us next!
Just Love is proud to highlight and discuss books that have excellent diversity, and Rick Riordan’s new imprint introduces us to mythology from a variety of cultures, including Korean, Mayan, and more!
We have three amazing books to give away:
The Storm Runner by J. C. Cervantes: A lonely boy in New Mexico has a physical disability that makes middle school feel even more like everyone is watching him. But as he soon learns, his physical differences are merely the first clue to a family history that connects him to the Mayan gods–and puts him in mortal danger.
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee: A sci-fi adventure novel about Min, a teenage fox spirit, who runs away to solve the mystery of what happened to her older brother and ends up saving her planet.
9 From the Nine Worlds, by Rick Riordan: The nine Norse worlds are rich with lore, as this collection of nine original stories, each told from a different character’s point of view, will prove.
But how do you win them?!
It’s easy! Check out our Rafflecopter Giveaway below, and enter daily over the next week to increase your chances of winning. You’ll get bonus entries by leaving a comment on this post, adding us on Twitter, and retweeting the giveaway.
Rules & Stuff: this giveaway is open to people in the US & Canada who are 18+ (or minors over the age of 13 with parental permission). Contest begins at 12:01 am EST on June 11, 2018 and ends at 11:59 pm EST on June 17. One winner will be chosen to win the above prize, and will have 72 hours from contact to respond or another winner may be chosen. No purchase necessary.
Rick Riordan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of over twenty novels for young readers, including the Percy Jackson series, the Kane Chronicles, the Magnus Chase series and the Trials of Apollo. He is also the author of the multi-award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series for adults.
Today, eighty-six million copies of his books are in print in the United States, and rights have been sold into more than 37 countries.
Rick Riordan now writes full-time. He lives in Boston with his wife and two sons.
Find him online at http://rickriordan.com