All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Rick Riordan

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Rick Riordan. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Rick Riordan

Hi, my name is Rick Riordan — author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympian Series which features Percy Jackson — a modern day son of the Greek God, Poseidon. I also write adult mysteries featuring a private investigator named Tres Navarre (ph.).

What I was like as a kid

Oh, what was I like as a child? Oh, man, that's a horrific story, I'm sure. Um, I was not a big reader, for one thing. I didn't like books until I was probably 11 or 12; and so I can relate to reluctant readers because I was one. I did not like the books that kids were told to read in the classroom.

I thought they were boring, I couldn't relate to them, I didn't know why people were so interested in them. So when a kid comes to me and says, "I don't like to read — yeah, I kind of understand where they're coming from." It wasn't really until I got into fantasy books — that was my doorway into reading, and it took a long time, and it took some supportive teachers to sort of try to find the books that they could put into my hands so I would actually enjoy.

So that was one part of my childhood. My parents were both teachers. My mom taught art in high school and my dad was a vocational ed teacher back when they had such things. So I came from a long line. My grandparents were teachers as well, so that, I guess, was in my blood. I sort of knew that I was going to be teacher.

Ever since I was in sixth or seventh grade I remember sitting in the classroom and looking up and thinking: oh, I could explain that — you know, let me come up to the board. I could tell you how to do that problem. So there was that; there was the fact that I was kind of an introspective kid. I wasn't like into sports or any of that. I was sort of the quiet kid.

And so I would be more likely to play with Lego's or build robots or make imaginary worlds than I was to be outside tossing a football around.

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Mythology for middle school

It was my eighth grade English teacher who really opened a lot of doors for me. She was the teacher who suggested that I could be a writer; and sort of tried for the first time to get me to send in a paper… — story rather — to a magazine. She was also the one that opened my eyes to mythology; because the first book that I remember reading in middle school that I enjoyed was The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And she said, "Do you know that all of that comes from Norse mythology?" And I said, "What are you talking... what is Norse mythology?" And she handed me a couple of books about Loki and Thor and the Golden Rings and Odin and all these great stories that I'd never heard of before. And that made me see that fantasy is a lot older than most people think.

It didn't start in the 1930s or the 1920s — it started 2,000 years ago with mythology; and a lot of the themes that we see in fantasy today are very, very ancient. They're from thousands of years ago. So with Percy Jackson that's kind of what I'm doing with the Greek. I'm taking all those old stories and kind of reinventing them in a modern mold.

Greek mythology spoke to me when I was a kid; and I don't think that I'm unique in that. I think a lot of kids go through a Greek mythology phase where it's just fascinating to them. I think part of it was just that they're great stories. They have monsters, they have magic, they have mystery, fantasy, romance, action, adventure, great heroes.

I mean, everything you could possibly want in a story is in Greek mythology. And that's always the thing that I like teaching with my kids when I was a teacher, too. I used to teach it in sixth grade English and every year that was my students' favorite thing. And after thinking about it for a while, I kind of came to the conclusion that there is an affinity between especially middle grade readers and Greek mythology.

And I think the reason is that your typical Greek hero is half-God, half-man, and they're sort of stuck in between worlds. They don't really fit in in either place; and yet they have all these Herculean challenges that they have to overcome. And I think a middle school kid feels kind of like that. They're not really an adult, they're not really a kid.

They're sort of stuck in the middle of two worlds just like that hero is, and they feel like every challenge that they face is Herculean. So I think they have a natural connection with the Greek heroes and they see in Perseus and Hercules and all of those guys kind of a metaphor for what they're going for as a middle school kid.

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I wanna be a rock star

Rick Riordan used to have a beard, mustache, long hair, and dreams of making it big. Then he decided to become a teacher. How the heck did that happen?

In college it's safe to say I probably was singing more than I was writing my essays — that's for sure. The first thing I thought I would be when I grew up is a rock star. I thought that I was going to be in a folk rock band and I had completely terrible Tony Orlando hair and this beard and mustache. It was really embarrassing looking at some of the old pictures from back then now.

But we thought that we were just really hot stuff and we went out and did the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and that was my job through high school — through college, rather. I worked my way through college playing in bands on the weekend. And it was a lot of fun and I did learn a thing or two, I guess, about writing because I was writing a lot of songs and doing lyrics and learning about what makes a good line and what doesn't make a good line.

A lot more failures than successes, but that's where a lot of my creative energy was going back in my college days. But the longer I was in college, the more drawn I became to English; and I started going back and reading all of those books that I never read in high school. I got through high school English without reading a single book — not one — that was assigned to me.

Because I would just listen to discussions and I would write the essays on what the teacher wanted to hear and I never had to read the book. But my karmic revenge, you know, was that later on in college I went back and read all those books and became an English teacher; so I always warned my students: don't do that. If you don't read the books, you'll probably become a teacher like me.

But I kept going with it, I loved English and I just loved the idea of reading and discussing books for a living. I mean, what could be better than that? And so that's what got me into English.

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My English teacher writes about monsters

I was a teacher for about 15 years. I taught mostly sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Some private, some public schools; about half of that time was spent in Texas and about half of it was spent in the bay area in California.

I found that the schools — although I taught at a hugely diverse group of schools — I found that really kids are kids and it didn't really matter whether I was teaching in an affluent San Francisco private school or a very, very underprivileged Title 1 public middle school in Texas. Really, the kids had kind of the same needs.

They needed somebody to take them seriously; they needed somebody not to waste their time. They wanted to come into the classroom and feel like the teacher knew what they were doing and cared about them and had structured the lesson in a way that would engage them with the information. And that took a long time for me to realize that that was part of my job — was to really be as excited about learning as I expected my kids to be.

And so I came to realize that part of education really is having fun. It's teaching kids that being a lifelong learner is a lot more than taking a standardized test. It means being curious about things; it means having questions that don't always have answers; and it means having activities that really engage you and that don't bore you when you're trying to learn.

So that was my goal as a teacher. As an English teacher, especially, my goal was always that the students would leave my classroom wanting to read more rather than wanting to read less. If I turn them off to reading; if they left my room thinking that English was boring, then I hadn't done my job.

And I wanted each of my kids to leave having connected with at least one book that they really loved. Not just they got through, but they really connected and they wanted to read everything that author had ever written. And that's a hard challenge and it wasn't always possible, but I like to think that I succeeded more often than I failed and that I kept trying with that.

And when I was writing Percy Jackson — again, back to my own books — I saw my sixth grade class in front of me. I imagined myself reading the manuscript to my fifth period class after lunch; and any classroom teacher can tell you that's a pretty tough litmus test. If you can keep them engaged fifth period after lunch, you know, you're doing something right.

So I imagined the manuscript that way and I read it aloud to my own sons to make sure that it wasn't going to slow down, that it didn't lose their interest and if they started drifting away, I would change that passage until I knew that I had their attention all the way through.

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The origins of Percy

Where Percy Jackson came from… it's certainly not something that I ever anticipated doing. I'd never sat down and said: okay, today I'm going to write a children's book. It was really my son. He was having a tough year in school, he was in second grade and he didn't like reading, he didn't like writing.

He would do anything to get out of doing homework. He would crawl under the table and say, "No, no, no! I'm not going to read today. I don't want to write." It was just really hard to get him to do any kind of reading or writing; and we didn't know why at first. And then we found out that he's ADHD and he's dyslexic; and so, of course, he was having trouble in school, and, of course, he didn't like reading and writing.

These were really difficult tasks for him. He had one saving grace in second grade, though — he loved the unit that his class was doing on Greek mythology. He thought that was fascinating. They had a wax museum display, he dressed up as Hades, he had these lines he was supposed to say. He thought the stories were just fantastic.

And that really was something that I could grab onto because as a sixth grade teacher I had taught middle school for years. So I started telling him stories at home to keep him interested; to keep his interest in school. And when I ran out, he said, "Dad, you have to tell me another one tonight." And I said, "How? There's no more — that's it."

And he said, "Well, make one up." And so in desperation I made up Percy Jackson and I just completely made up this kid who's the son of Poseidon and he has to go across the United States battling monsters. And my son is the one who told me to write it down. He said, "Dad, you should make that into a book."

And, at the time, I just said: well, there's no way. I'm teaching full-time, I'm already writing a book a year. When would I possibly have time? But because he was insistent, I did. It took me many months to write the manuscript and then I showed it to my own students — my sixth and seventh and eighth graders.

And I tell ya: I was more nervous giving that manuscript to my students than I have ever been submitting anything to an editor in New York — because the kids, they're tough. But they loved it; and they had great feedback and they said: well, how about this — you know, you have to change the title.

The first title was Son of the Sea God; and the kids said: no, no, no — you can't all it that because it gives away who is father is too early. Oh, yeah. So I changed that; I changed the way the sword that Percy has worked because the kids gave me feedback on how it should work; and that became The Lightening Thief. And it was all kid-driven starting with my son and right on into my students encouraging me to submit it.

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The Battle of the Labyrinth

The fourth Percy Jackson book just came out. I'm right at the beginning of my big tour for this book — The Battle of the Labyrinth is the name of the book. I had been so excited for this book to come out. I feel like I finished it six months ago and I'd been on pins and needles because I'm waiting to see if the final arbiters — the kids — will like it.

That's really to me… that's all that matters — are they going to get into the story. The story basically is about the old labyrinth that used to be where they kept the menatar back in the old days; but in my world, a lot of the things from Greek mythology have now translated into modern America. And the labyrinth has spread and it's grown. It is now covering the entire United States.

It's like an underground world right under our feet. And you just never know when you're going to find yourself in the labyrinth. You could walk down a doorway into a basement in New York City and distance is meaningless in the labyrinth. You could walk ten feet, climb up a staircase and you'd be in LA. You just never know.

The thing is, once you get into the labyrinth, the chances are you're never coming back alive because it's full of traps, it's full of monsters, the labyrinth changes on you. But if you could find a way to navigate, you could go anywhere almost instantaneously.

In The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy's old enemy — Luke — finds a way to navigate the labyrinth which means he can take his evil army of monsters and invade anywhere at a moment's notice. And Percy and his friends have to go to down into the maze and figure out: how is he doing it and how can they stop him?

The reaction from the kids so far has been unbelievable. I've already heard from hundreds of kids who got up early on the day of the publication and went to the bookstore on their way to school, got the book; and a lot of schools say they may a reading day out of it and they just gave up on the curriculum for the day and they just sat in the classroom and read Battle of the Labyrinth all day.

I've been getting photos, I've been getting lots of comments — and so far the kids really, really have enjoyed it. It's so neat to see them excited about a book. That's just not something that you see all the time. And to think that this world that I created with Percy Jackson — this little story for my son — has become this sort of global experience; and it's not really mine anymore.

It's sort of passed onto the kids and they're all participating in this world. It's incredible. It's really hard to put into words that they're all taking it as their own place, and they all feel like they're campers with Percy at Camp Half-Blood. It's amazing. One of my favorite emails I got recently — back to the ADHD and dyslexic kids — a girl wrote and said, "You know, I was always ashamed of being ADHD dyslexic; and now that I read Percy Jackson, I treat it like a badge of honor."

"And my friends say: can I be ADHD and dyslexic, too?" And they feel bad that they're not. So I have to assure the kids that don't have learning differences — it's okay. You don't have to have a learning difference to be a demigod.

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The future of Camp Half-Blood

The Percy Series began with The Lightening Thief. And I knew very early on that I wanted to do a series — partly because as a reader, I always prefer a series. I like going back and revisiting those characters like old friends. At the same time, I think a series needs a good, strong ending.

And I think we've all probably read series that went on too long; and you can tell the author's getting tired of it and that the books just aren't as good as they used to be; and I didn't ever want that to happen with Percy. So I saw the Percy Jackson and the Olympian Series as a five-book arc; and I've stuck with that.

The fifth Percy Jackson book, which will be out in 2009, will be the final story about Percy. It'll be wrapping up the prophecy and all of the things that began with The Lightening Thief. Now having said that, as I talk to kids, they have so many questions about Camp Half-Blood where the demigods train and about the different gods and what about this monster?

And will we ever hear about this titan or this god —that I started to realize there are a lot of untold stories here. Percy, for instance, spends hardly any time at Camp Half-Blood. He arrives at the beginning of the summer and immediately he's off on some quest. And a lot of kids ask: well, what's happening at camp while Percy's away?

So I started thinking about all of that and I decided I could really do a very interesting story that wasn't necessary Percy's story, but that was set at Camp Half-Blood. And so that's coming; and a couple of years after the last Percy book, I'll be writing a new series about Camp Half-Blood and the demigods there but from a slightly different angle. It should be fun — I'm looking forward to it.

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The Lightening Thief: Coming to a theater near you

The movie hasn't even come out yet, but they're working on that; so I can't imagine what's going to happen when that comes out.

20th Century Fox is doing the movie; Chris Columbus is the director who did the first two Harry Potter films. I understand that they are doing well on the script — they're just about done with that. And supposedly the release date will be November 2009. So fingers crossed, we should see it in the movie theaters before too long.

I didn't have any really direct role in the movie other than granting the rights; and I will get to see the script, they tell me, and make suggestions. Really, that's just as well for me because I wouldn't know where to start with a screenplay. And even if I were to try, I don't think I would have time to do it well.

So I'm kind of happy divorcing myself from that. Of course, my biggest concern is that they do a good job and they always have to change books when they turn them into movies because there's simply no way that you can take everything in a 350 page book and present it accurately in two hours.

Having said that, I have a lot of faith in the people that I've talked to at Fox and in Chris Columbus based on his track record. So I'm fairly optimistic that they're going to do a good job; but I'm happy just writing the books and letting them do the movie.

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Three tips for young writers

Yeah, I've talked to a lot of young writers; and what I typically say to them is that there are three things you have to do if you want to write. The first is you have to read a lot. That's where you're going to get your fuel. You're going to sort of ingest those voices and learn what it is to be a writer by reading what other people have written before you.

So you have to be a reader if you want to write. The second thing is you have to practice. Writing is like a sport — it's like athletics. If you don't practice, you don't get any better. You can't just talk about doing it — you have to actually sit in the chair and get out the keyboard or get out the pad of paper and actually write.

If you can do a little bit every day, that's great. It doesn't have to be a lot, but even a page a day will build up your writing muscles and you'll get better at what you're doing. And a third thing, just as important as the other two, is that you can't give up. A lot of people don't get published — it's not because they couldn't have, it's because they gave up.

They didn't keep at it, they didn't finish that story they were thinking about finishing, they got one rejection note and they thought it was the end of the world. You have to keep going. You have to listen to all those writers who talk about the ream of rejection notes that they had before they finally found a story that they were really meant to tell.

And that's the thing, too. You have to find a story — not just that you think it would be cool to write, but that sort of grabs you and says: oh, you have to write me. That's the story that you should be writing.

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My new life as an author

I've been out of the classroom now for about three years; and I do miss it. I miss having my own students and getting to know them over the course of the year and knowing their names and watching them grow up and having them coming back the next year. That's the great thing about teaching, and I miss that a lot.

But I have to say, as an author now, just doing that full-time, I still do a lot of school visits. I'm talking to kids all the time; I see them every week; so I still feel a little bit like a teacher just in a different capacity. And I don't have to grade the homework, so, you know, it all works out.

My daily… It's hard to say, really, with my daily routine, because every day is different. If I'm at home, I'll get up in the morning and I'll usually do a little bit of writing; and then I will stop when the kids get up and my sons are ready to go to school — I'll get them off to school, I'll take care of some business; and then I'll go back to the writing in the afternoon.

I tend to work best around the edges of the day and the early morning or late at night when the house is quiet and my mind seems to work best then. And I'd like to say that I write eight hours a day — I don't. I usually write about two or three hours a day maximum; and I find that after that, I just get diminishing returns and I just am not able to do much more than that.

I had these visions that when I became a full-time writer I would get twice as much done — but, no, I write just as much now as I did when I was teaching full-time. The other thing to say about that is if you have a full-time job and you're thinking to yourself: well, I'm too busy to write — oh, don't wait because you're always going to feel too busy to write. You've just got to go ahead and write that book.

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