I’ve always loved Rick Riordan books. I enjoy them as a reader and I utilized them as tools as a teacher, and now I love them even more.
Representation in media has been proven a vital component of social empathy over and over again. As we’ve seen more characters struggling with who they are and where they fit in these fictional worlds, it gives us greater empathy for how real people who have to deal with our ignorance in our real world think and feel. Reading books with characters who are different than us teaches us, if not perfectly for every situation, guidelines for how to treat all people with empathy and respect.
You may wonder what that diatribe has to do with a book about Norse mythology for middle schoolers.
In the original heroes and mythology series starring Percy Jackson, Riordan normalized behaviors commonly identified as disruptive in our schools. He took ADD/ADHD and dyslexia and made those characters heroes who saw the world a little differently than their peers.
In the first Magnus Chase book, we met a Muslim Valkyrie and were introduced to the general order of Norse mythology. Having characters of various religious groups in a kids book is amazing. The real world is full of diverse people of different faiths, and we so rarely see that in novels. Because the soldiers living in Valhalla are all from various time periods, Riordan created an incredible universe with the most diverse cast of characters of any book I’ve read, regardless of targeted age range. Each character is clearly defined and developed, with quirks and struggles. Aside from the wonderful messages of acceptance conveyed, these books are wonderfully crafted works of fiction that really stay true to the actual myths they were inspired by.
In the second book, one of the main characters is gender fluid. This is important for so many reasons. Just the simple representation of having a gender fluid character will normalize the vocabulary for heteronormative kids. Making that character one of the main characters allows the reader to get to know the individual. The character is often left to answer the questions of other characters who’ve never encountered a gender fluid person before, and shows that sometimes, not every question deserves an answer. It’s so important to teach kids to ask the right questions appropriately, and to make sure they know when to back off. Wanting to learn more about an individual versus learning about the group they represent to you are two different concepts, and those skills need to be taught. But my favorite lesson from this book is that it’s normal to have questions, and it’s normal to be attracted to them. When one character is clearly intrigued and drawn to the gender fluid character, the friends show acceptance. Acceptance is the answer. Acceptance creates positive environments in which everyone can grow in a healthy way. Seeing someone often portrayed as different (in a negative way) portrayed in a positive way in this book, with battles and smarts and and an amazing adaptivity, is helping forge a path that allows all kids to be true to themselves.
Aside from the incredible messages of strength and resilience this book offers, it’s a really great read! Although I’d recommend the Percy Jackson books to a little below the suggested grades, because it’s so wonderful and enjoyable, I wouldn’t encourage all younger readers with this one. Besides the more mature concepts, there are some frightening scenes. Vividly described zombies, graphic battles, and the violence required at such battles- I know my scaredy-cat self in upper elementary school wouldn’t have handled those scenes well. If you aren’t sure if your kid is ready yet, read it yourself! It’s really enjoyable (confession: I’ve read all of Rick Riordan’s kids books as an adult. True story. I love mythology and books and I don’t age discriminate with books!).
If you’re looking for the perfect middle school book, this one should certainly appeal to all genders. There are plenty of bodily function jokes, but also deep, meaningful relationships and a great explanation of Norse mythology. If your family has already read any of the Percy Jackson series, you’ll all enjoy the small crossover bits (Annabeth from the Greek world is cousins with Magnus from the Norse world). If you’re trying to sell it to your preteen boy, the protagonist is a male, he’s a demigod, and he goes on quests and battles with literal soldiers preparing for the end of the world. While there are plenty of physical battles, there are also battles of wits, funny quips, hilarious chapter titles, and a subtle emphasis on friendship and loyalty. If you’re pitching it to the middle grade girl in your life, the females are strong, capable girls worthy of looking up to. They’re smart, quick on their feet, and work as equals with the males in the battles. They are fierce- but also human, and there’s even a little bit of an age-appropriate love story.
Regardless of age and gender, I highly recommend this book. You don’t have to read the first book to read this one, but it helps (and it’s also enjoyable).
Have you read The Hammer of Thor? What did you think?