Monday, November 9, 2009

Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief book review

            Puberty is hard enough.  But try going through it when your dad is Poseidon.
            In Rick Riordan’s smash hit children’s novel, The Lightning Thief, adolescent hero Percy Jackson has to deal with both.  
            For the first 12 years of his life, Percy’s unknown parentage contributes to a mountain of problems rivaling the size of Olympus.  Percy also has trouble controlling his feelings, has a hard home life with his mom and his dead-beat stepdad and he has ADHD and dyslexia.  The only subject Percy excels in is Latin, taught by the kind-hearted, wheelchair-bound Mr. Brunner, and Percy’s only friend is Grover, an awkward adolescent with muscular dystrophy.
            Percy doesn’t fit in anywhere--until he realizes he isn’t just a human.  Following a fight with a monster disguised as his pre-algebra teacher and a date with the three old ladies knitting giant socks—later revealed to be a Fury and the Three Fates, respectively—Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, a place designed to keep the children of the Greek Gods safe from harm.
            At Camp Half-Blood, Percy suddenly finds himself surrounded by people—and creatures—he thought were mere fairy tales.  Mr. Brunner reveals himself as Chiron, the hero-mentor centaur.  Grover is now a satyr and Percy’s personal protector.  Dionysus, the god of wine, runs the camp as a sober Mr. D.  And what’s more, Percy finds out that he isn’t just a normal boy—he is Poseidon’s son, the Son of the Sea God.
            Why save the most important revelation of his life for his 12th year?  Because his father needs his help.  Percy learns he must travel to the Underworld, the home of his father’s rival, Hades, retrieve Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt and clear his father’s name.  A tale of classic family honor mixed with minotaurs, hellhounds and prophecies, Riordan’s book never fails to exceed the reader’s expectations.
            Some of the mythological creatures in The Lightning Thief aren’t monsters 12-year-olds come across every day.  But Riordan does an excellent job bringing the material down to a middle school level, and he does it with unparalled humor. 
            For example, Percy gives the Minotaur a hysterical yet memorable description: “He wore no clothes except underwear—I mean, bright white Fruit of the Looms—which would’ve looked funny, except that the top half of his body was so scary…[with] his horns—enormous black-and-white horns with points you just couldn’t get from an electric sharpener.”
            Hilarious chapter titles such as “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher” and “My Mother Teaches Me Bullfighting” are also a sure way to attract the attention of any ordinary middle schooler and draw them into this extraordinary tale.
            Over the course of the five total books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians saga, the trio of Percy, demigoddess Annabeth (daughter of Athena) and the satyr Grover tackle several quests and meet numerous gods and goddesses, all while allowing the reader to learn their mythological significance.           
            While the material may be hard to remember even for some adults (try naming the 12 main gods with a working knowledge of Greek mythology from high school), Riordan’s readers seem to have no problem. 
            Riordan gives the characters unique looks that lend to their meaning in ways that middle schoolers respond to and delight at, such as Ares pictured with a Harley, biker tattoos, and a leather jacket, and Poseidon with a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and sandals.  They’re specialties, as the god of war and the god of the sea, respectively, are now unforgettable.
            Even more important than absorbing the stories of Artemis and Apollo, however, are the larger issues Percy must deal with his life—such as his learning disability.
            Percy bounces from boarding school to boarding school labeled as a delinquent because of his ADHD and dyslexia, a title many American youth can identify with.  He has trouble concentrating, his brain is always running a mile a minute and when he does sit down to read, the letters float off the page.
            When Percy (and the reader) realizes that his learning disabilities are a result of his Olympic parentage, he learns that he is special, not just different.  He struggles to learn English because his brain is hardwired to learn ancient Greek.  He can’t concentrate in a slow-paced classroom because his body is genetically designed for a battlefield.
            The beauty of Riordan’s book lies in these realizations; a child reading along with Percy as he struggles in school sees their disabilities as acceptable, even desirable, to a special group of kids living over the edge of Half-Blood Hill.
            Riordan succeeds with his ability to craft a believable, fantastical universe by connecting Poseidon’s Grecian world to Percy’s 21st century.  For its incredible value in breaking the barrier of learning disorders and teaching mythology to preteens, The Lightning Thief is way more than a tale of preteen puberty. 

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