Young Adult Fiction Doesn't Need to Be a 'Gateway' to the Classics

There's a reason kids prefer Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series to ancient Greek mythology.

Sherri B/Flickr

I tried to get my 10-year-old son to read George Orwell's Animal Farm recently. He read a few pages gamely, but was mostly uninterested. He'd much prefer to chug along in The Blood of Olympus, the last massive volume in Rick Riordan's massive Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. An adventure story about demigods kicking butt beat an acerbic parable about the failures of Communism. No wonder totalitarianism is winning.

Obviously, it's a bit much to jump to apocalyptic conclusions based on the reading habits of one fifth grader. Everyone knows that. And yet, at the same time, children's reading habits consistently provoke if not panic, at least nervousness and tasteful hand-wringing. Over the summer, Ruth Graham argued that young adult literature was fundamentally different from, and inferior to, adult literature, and that adults who read it were doing so in order to indulge in "escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia." Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker presents a softer, more ambivalent version of that argument, worrying that (as in my son’s case) reading a book like Percy Jackson "makes young readers hungry for more of the palatable same" rather than "urging them on to more challenging adventures."

Discussions like this often seem to presume that there was an idyllic time, somewhere in the past, when kids' books were substantially better, or when young people read great adult literature. Graham contrasts Percy Jackson and Riordan's new encyclopedia Percy Jackson's Greek Gods to the classic 1925 collection of Greek myths by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire. She finds Riordan's book slangy and "inscribed with obsolescence," since it references Craigslist, iPhones, and other pop culture detritus. The D'Aulaires, on the other hand, remain "lucid"—though their poetic Victorian language is, she admits, "stilted." Graham seems to conclude that it's a loss that kids want to read lines like "At first, Kronos wasn’t so bad. He had to work his way up to being a complete slime bucket" instead of  “In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty."

To me, though, Riordan's joke about Kronos is actually better written: less weighed down with reverence, more surprising, and less condescending towards its subject matter (who is it who sees those idols as "ugly"?). I read Riordan's The Lost Hero multiple times and worked on a study guide about it; I wouldn't say that its prose is deathless, but I can think of many inferior books. Percy Jackson isn't any worse than the Hardy Boys adventures or Piers Anthony's Xanth novels that I read as a kid.

For that matter, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told me, "When people say children's literature isn't that great, a lot of adult literature isn't that great." Better Percy Jackson than 50 Shades or John Grisham or the Left Behind books. Better Percy Jackson than James Fenimore Cooper, for that matter—or than The Old Man and the Sea. Inventive, goofy, elaborate adventures with gods and gleeful pop cult references—or maudlin, macho themes shamelessly vaunting simplicity as an anxious marker of seriousness?  I'll take the first, thanks.

I'm sure that comparing Riordan to Hemingway is going to cause a certain amount of wailing and denunciation. But that's the thing about aesthetics; there isn't a single standard, or a single agreed-upon rubric for what is "good." Graham tentatively suggests that the Percy Jackson books are too beholden to their own time, and timelessness or universality is, of course, often used as a measure of quality. But it's not a very convincing measure.

As just one example, most of the classic children's literature books—Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Narnia, Treasure Island—look very dated today by virtue of their overwhelming whiteness, their time-bound, helpless inability to imagine that people come in more than one skin color. Rick Riordan, in contrast, takes care in his books to include heroes of many ethnic backgrounds: Hispanic, black, Asian, and Native American, as well as white. Children of the gods in his novels also often have learning disabilities; dyslexia is seen not as a failure, but as a mark of specialness or heroism. Thomas told me, "I do think that [Riordan] does a better job with diversity than some of the middle-grade texts I grew up with," and she added that the books were very popular among her nephews and nieces, and among the middle-school children she works with in Philadelphia. Riordan has a more thoughtful, original, aesthetically considered take on issues of marginalization and diversity than do the D'Aulaires, or for that matter, than does Hemingway. It seems likely that many kids take that into account, in various ways, when they respond to his books. Should we really be so quick to assume that their taste is debased?

The pro­–kids' lit side of this debate will often argue that reading anything, even Percy Jackson, is good for kids and will lead them to better books in the future. Neil Gaiman, for example, has called kid's fiction a "gateway drug" for every kind of book. "Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature,” he wrote in The Guardian. “You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant."

I'm somewhat sympathetic to that argument—but I also worry that it shares some unfortunate assumptions with the Harry Potter haters.  Graham is worried that Percy Jackson will lead kids amiss down the road, and prevent them from trying better books. Gaiman thinks Percy Jackson will instead lead kids to better reading. In both cases, the present is judged by the future; reading now as kids is important, or dangerous, because of what kids will be later.

But kids are not just potential people; they're people, period. I've explained to my son the things about Percy Jackson that I don't like that much—the way the plot is just one video-game inspired set piece challenge after another; the fact that despite the diversity, the big two main characters are still white guys. And my son thinks about it and sometimes agrees and sometimes doesn't. Aesthetic differences are part of what make aesthetics fun; having conversations with folks who have a separate take on the thing you love is part of the pleasure of being engaged with art.  And that engagement is worthwhile for him, it seems to me, whether or not he goes on to read Henry James. Certainly one of the messages of Percy Jackson, and of a lot of kids' literature, is that children are not just waiting to pick their lives up when they're grown, but are heroes of their own stories now. That's a lesson that adults have trouble with, if the condescension and contempt in the discussion of children's reading is any indication. Maybe the people who really need to read Percy Jackson are the grown-ups.