Fifteen years ago, the middle grade scene was forever changed by one book.
In 2005, many popular middle grade series were reaching the final few books of their respective series. A Series of Unfortunate Events released Book 12 of 13, The Penultimate Peril, and the Harry Potter series was nearing its finale with the second to last installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6 out of 7). Young readers everywhere were waiting for something to fill those impossibly big shoes. What would be the next big thing?
Little did they know that one middle grade teacher had a story that would capture the hearts of middle schoolers, teenagers, and young adults for decades to come. His name was Rick Riordan, and his story was about a 12-year-old boy, with the powers of the sea and a sharp sense of humor.
His story was none other than Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.
Now what makes The Lightning Thief the undying favorite of young adults everywhere? The simple answer is the authenticity of Riordan’s writing. Now, what do I mean by this?
Despite living in a world where the Greek gods of the past are still around and stirring up trouble, the characters and setting of The Lightning Thief feels like it’s being told through the eyes of a real middle schooler. The adults, authority figures, and monsters are written through the eyes of Percy Jackson, who feels like a real pre-teen boy. He reacts to his own struggles, concerns, and emotions just how a middle schooler should and does act in real life. He’s confused about his powers, hurt by his dad not being around, angry at his stepfather, and yet he is undyingly loyal to his friends. He is brave in the face of evil. While he’s young, he tries his hardest. Sometimes he fails, sometimes he succeeds, but he does so with the unwavering hope and courage of a young boy. He is also ridiculously hilarious.
The other reason The Lightning Thief continues to capture the hearts of readers everywhere, is the pure hilarity of Riordan’s writing. His time as a middle grade teacher clearly shines through with the abundant humor bursting throughout the entire book.
Riordan just gets middle schooler humor. When Percy’s emotions get out of control, he causes an entire bathroom worth of toilets to explode with water. Riordan’s chapter titles are also bursting with humor; for this scene he decide to call this chapter—“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom.”
Or what about when Percy Jackson meets the Lord of the Underworld himself, the god Hades? How does he react? He thinks about the god’s underwear:
“Hades raised an eyebrow. When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment was stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’ underwear?”
An otherwise serious and perhaps terrifying moment is quickly undercut by Percy’s ADHD brain and youthful curiosity. That, my friends, is hilarious.
But perhaps the greatest part of The Lightning Thief is its message. In one story, young readers have learned what it means to be brave, to be a good friend, to persevere, to stand up to bullies, and that even when life is hard, there is always hope— hope that good will conquer evil, that justice will be served, and that good days are on the horizon.
The Lightning Thief is one of my all time favorite books. It has brought me joy during hard times, and is in fact one of the only books to ever make me laugh out loud. It will forever hold a place in my heart, as it does for thousands of other young adults around the world.
Happy birthday Percy. We love you! And thank you, Uncle Rick. The world would be a darker place without your stories.