Children's Media: Rick Riordan and Diversity

For those who may not know, there was a group of children born in the late-90’s who just barely missed the Harry Potter series. Oh, we would still have the opportunity to read them, but by the time that we got to that reading level, the first movie adaptations had already been released. And even if one had somehow managed not to see them, the marketing was everywhere. Mere images or hype can easily influence how a person ends up experiencing something, especially a novel, when any visualization and interpretation happens internally. Because of this, these children couldn’t be introduced to the Harry Potter books as only books - they would officially carry the additional labels of “source material” and “comparisons” in reference to the movies. We could still enjoy them, but just about any person who loves to read can feel a sense of merit to enjoying a story as a book first - even at age 8.

Thankfully, this group of children ended up discovering another book series - one that also featured prophecies and magic and young protagonists with special powers that get sorted into fun, distinct groups that readers could picture themselves in. And even if the later movie releases could impact their view of the books, they were woefully unfaithful and almost universally hated by previous fans. This series is “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” by Rick Riordan.

The continuing story about a group of kids whose parents are gods from Greek mythology began in 2005 with “The Lightning Thief” and was instantly met with praise from both readers and critics. So much so that after the release of the series’ fifth and final instalment in 2009, even among companion books and supplementary stories, other novels taking place in the same universe and following the same characters continued to be released in the years to come. In fact, they’re still being released today. Some stories have branched out to focus on the figures of other classic mythologies - Egyptian with “The Kane Chronicles” and Norse with “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard” - and other series continue to focus on the Greco-Roman mythos, adding to the characters we already know with “The Heroes of Olympus” and most recently “The Trials of Apollo.

The fact that these stories still see so much success, and so many adults that grew up reading the early books continue to read the new ones is fascinating in and of itself. But what’s amazing is how the stories have changed over the years - and how they haven’t. The writing is still fun, humorous and fast-paced while keeping in the weight of a given situation, and the characters still have lovable, bold personalities. Even the greater plotlines still share a similar structure, and honestly can easily be seen as repetitive if one doesn’t already enjoy it. What has changed largely has to do with the growing world and audience that these books are being written for. In a word: the diversity.

It can be easy to forget, but the original Percy Jackson series did not feature a very colorful cast, at least not in terms of wide representation. There was only one pivotal character described as African-American, he died early in the last book, and - at least in the initial introduction - one of the Cabins (this series’ loose equivalent to the Houses in Hogwarts) was described as being entirely populated by half-related children with blonde hair and grey eyes. I mean... yikes. It may not have been a focus to some readers at the time, but plenty of people did draw attention to this shortcoming, and ever since, Riordan has made a slow progression of making up for this and improving his representation. “The Kane Chronicles” centered around Egyptian mythology, so naturally there would be a fair amount of dark-skinned protagonists there (already beating out certain Hollywood standards). “The Heroes of Olympus” brought characters of widely varying backgrounds and ethnicities into the Greek and Roman spotlight, as well as established one of the other long-standing characters to be gay. “The Trials of Apollo,” the most recent series to begin, has already featured multiple homosexual relationships and a bisexual protagonist/narrator, with enough attention given to these factors to cause a fair amount of outcry from parents on Amazon. All of these show impressive development on Riordan’s part, but it’s his Norse series - “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard” - that I’d like to give some additional attention to.

The series started last year, October 2015, with “The Sword of Summer,” and quickly established a diverse main cast. A years-homeless protagonist, a black dwarf, a deaf elf, and a strong, outspoken, kickass Muslim valkyrie. Besides talking swords and evil wolves, the story is also being woven through blatant social commentary, humor based in sign language and a life-saving magic hijab. The individual struggles of each character’s place in normal contemporary society is by no means the focus of the greater story, nor does it distract from the fantasy, but each person is given a chance to talk about these issues in full as needed. And this is just in the first novel.

The sequel, “The Hammer of Thor,” just came out last month. And in this book, not only does the narrative dive further into the issues addressed before, but a new character is introduced. First established in mention as another character’s brother, the language of the narration begins to perform tricks with how this person is discussed. Specific terms are avoided, the character is absent for as long as possible, and even during a full visual description, no pronouns are used. Not until after the character is given a face and name - Alex Fierro - is it revealed that she is transgender and gender fluid. AND not only does she get to explain her identity in pure and simple terms, not only is she viewed with respect, but, as becomes more and more clear, she’s the main character’s love interest.

Who could have seen that coming?

(Note: this article will continue to use she/her pronouns in reference to Alex as these are the last pronouns used by the end of the book.)

In the interest of just having a trans character, it would have been so easy to simply make one as a side character, or just say “she’s trans” and move on. But here, the characters actually go into detail with her identity. People make varying efforts to understand her, and she explains how her gender works and how people should treat her and others because of it, as well as saying not to use her as an example of all trans or gender fluid people. Her gender is not the definitive quality of her character, being sharp-witted, crafty, a shapeshifter and a gifted fighter, but it is an important part of her identity, as she demonstrates early on that she does not want to be without it.

On top of all this, the second book also goes into more detail with the deaf and Muslim character’s experiences than in the first one. More specific hand motions are described when characters are using sign language, as are more aspects of Muslim practices. The character Sam (short for Samirah al-Abbas) demonstrates Islamic prayer, is happily engaged in an arranged marriage to a boy she loves, and has multiple discussions with the main character about how her complete monotheistic faith and Magnus’s lack of faith can reconcile and interact in the mutually bizarre setting of a pagan afterlife filled with powerful, threatening, and sometimes comedic gods.

Not only does all of this make for a pretty insane, fascinating and entertaining modern fantasy story, but the diversity is being so thoughtfully done that it can be seen as genuinely doing good to the audience. While it’s true that some parents have complained about the inclusion of gay characters and “Politically Correct agendas” being shoehorned into these books that they buy for their children, the people who have been crying out for diversity in media are finally being heard. Kids who are now reading these stories are getting an education - and not just in history and mythology. New perspectives and mindsets are being explained in detail and in a way that they can understand, opening new opportunities of how to view themselves and others in the real world today. Even if one argues that the discussion of social problems in the new books goes on too long and distracts from the story (I will admit, I can understand that), yes, there is much more time dedicated to those topics than there has been in the past. But I would argue that this is completely necessary. While still being filled with violence and an increasingly adult mindset (I don’t think the publishers of 2005 would let terms like “jackass” and “consummation” slide), these books are still written for middle-grade kids. And if they’re going to include these ideas that are almost impossible to find in other children’s entertainment - at least in these straightforward terms - why shouldn’t they be explained as bluntly and in as much detail as possible?

And this is the most impressive thing of all - not just that these characters are diverse and coming from an author that has had to change so much to make them, but that they’re written for kids, and made in a way that frankly seems better than a lot of adult media coming out these days. How many movies come out that still don’t pass the Bechdel Test? How many TV shows bring in token characters and eventually kill them off? How many pieces of media feature a pointless heterosexual romance or don’t accurately display mental conditions and disabilities? Even in the early days of Percy Jackson when most of the cast was still white and straight, the stories still gave plenty of perspectives of abusive families and homelessness, as well as the experience of living with dyslexia and ADHD. Even the romantic subplots seem to have a more mature understanding of affection than other popular media. While it would make sense for any “attraction” between two characters in these books to be more implicit and not focused on physical attributes, I find it impressive how much of the chemistry from any couple purely comes from learning more about one another and actually accomplishing things together - giving more focus and priority to full companionship and understanding than anything else. And all of these subjects still remain prominant in the books coming out now.

These books have meant a lot to myself and those around me for years, and continue to be popular with children today. But now, Riordan has been providing not only clever jokes, compelling environments and engaging stories, but characters and situations that are increasingly more diverse and relevant to the world we live in. Plus, being marketed to children, these stories and perspectives are in a place where kids can be educated and enlightened and given a better understanding of others - and possibly even themselves. Getting rid of prejudices before they can be introduced to any blind hatred. Considering the state of the world today, stories like this may have become needed now more than ever before. I am thankful to have them and hope that they continue.