The Percy Jackson Solution

Twitter was a-twitter today with the latest in a series of cannonballs lobbed in the general direction of books for and about kids, and the people who read them. This one landed on the deck of the SS Rick Riordan. I rarely enter these frays, because I know six hundred other people will say the same thing, and somebody will say it way better than I can (usually Anne Ursu), but I want to respond to this conclusion:

 What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them. . . away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?

What if, I would answer, what if… what if there was a body of research that already answered this question? What if there was an entire professional enterprise devoted to it? What if there was some fangled-thing called “reading education” that explored the lifelong relationships between kids and books?

Hey, guess what! There totally is!

For example, see the work of Jim Trelease, who coined the term “home run book,” an idea summed up nicely by Stephen Krashen:

One very positive experience can create a reader.

What’s a very positive experience? It’s a kid getting excited by a book. Sometimes, as Michael Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm discovered, the book has an authenticity in a reader’s life (which is why we need diverse books). Sometimes, as William Brozo has explored, the book has something do with the adult a kid wants to become. Sometimes, according to Krashen, that book is an award-winning literary historical novel, sometimes it’s gritty urban adventure, sometimes it’s a formulaic mystery (like the ones Mead admits to liking as a child), and sometimes it’s a comic book (gasp). For millions of kids, apparently, it is Percy Jackson. But whatever book turns a kid into a lifelong reader, we know this:

 One very positive experience can create a reader.

This isn’t a theory at this point, it has been affirmed by decades of research. To ask “What if a positive reading experience totally ruins reading?” is as ridiculous at this point as asking if vaccines cause autism: not because the question itself has never been worth asking, but because it’s been answered exhaustively and to keep asking it shows a dogged incuriosity in the facts.

I don’t especially care for Percy Jackson myself (I’m more of a Cronus Chronicles fan), but this isn’t about my taste. Of all the challenges kids becoming lifelong readers — no access to books, no access to books about kids like themselves, socialized negative attitudes about reading, a lack of positive role models who read — one thing absolutely not on the list is beloved series that has millions of kids reading. That is the solution, not the problem.

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