Monday, February 25, 2013

Percy Jackson: A Book Review in Which I Disagree With Everyone Else Who Has a Blog

My ten year old son loves to read.  And though he enjoys the books recommended by our classical curriculum, sometimes he yearns to read something a bit more modern and edgy . . .




or perhaps something a bit more ancient and Greek.  Somewhere, he heard about The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) and asked if he could get it at the library.  I looked at a couple of reviews online, and people generally raved about it.  Catholic people.

I figured it would be fine.  I did, however, require that Jack read an actual Book of Greek Myths before he read the "fractured" version.  (This is a pet peeve of mine, children reading books riffing off of classic tales about which they know nothing.)

So he started it, and, as I usually like to know for myself what my kids are reading, so did I.  He was ahead of me, which is poor planning on my part.  But I was pleased when he came to me with an early concern about the book.  There were extramarital liaisons.  We discussed that those are certainly a theme of the original myths and that he should keep a discerning eye open to make sure that immoral acts are described non-graphically and shown accompanied by realistic consequences.

I tried to catch up with him, but I'm sorry to say I didn't and he finished before I did.  He said he enjoyed the action and comedy, but was worried I would think that it wasn't a good book for kids.

He was right.

I should take a quick moment here to say that I LOVE middle grade books and fantasy books and books in general.  I have often found myself in the position of defending popular books that other Catholics worry about.  I had every intention of liking and recommending this book.

Also, I'm assuming here that you are reading this review because your child wants to read this book but you don't want to, so there will be major spoilers.

I didn't like this book because of its relativistic approach to religion, its matter-of-fact presentation of extra-marital relationships, and its celebration of Percy's mother's murder of her husband.

I am not concerned that reading this book would tempt my children to become polytheists.  But Mr. Riordan seems to be trying to avoid conflicts with Christianity by having one of his characters separate the notion of a "big G" God from the "little g" gods.  It isn't particularly convincing.  Much more troubling is when Percy sees a scamming televangelist being escorted to the worst part of Hades.  When he questions whether the man wouldn't be expecting a different type of hell, he is told that people just see whatever they believed in when they were alive.  This is morally relativistic new age baloney, and I won't have it.

I found this image after I wrote that.
Apparently Hephaestus is a character in Wonder Woman comics?

Also, it would be hard to avoid references to sexual relationships outside marriage in a tale about Greek myths.  But in the original myths we see the pain and suffering and inconvenience to gods and men that these dalliances cause.  Not so in this book.  Percy's father says Percy's mom is a "queen among women" and she is presented as strong-minded for hooking up with a married god but then refusing his offers of help and instead living unhappily with a smelly, poker-playing new husband.

Percy and his little friends are also sent on a quest into the love nest of two cheating gods (who aren't there).  Super creepy and inappropriate.  And again, zero consequences.

In the original myth, Aphrodite is married by her father Zeus to the crippled blacksmith Hephaestus, despite her love for Ares.  She continues having relations with Ares after having consummated her relationship with her husband.  Hephaestus sets a trap and catches the lovers in the act.  His agony and the shame of the entrapped lovers are a big part of the story (although the assembled gods find it all rather amusing).  NONE of that happens in the book.  Hephaestus's trap is foiled by Percy and we can assume that the lovers are free to carry on.


This is the least unclothed Aphrodite ever gets, 
at Wikimedia Commons anyway.
Finally (although there's more), at the end of the book, we learn that Percy's mother has murdered her lout of a husband with the severed head of Medusa that Percy has left for her.  Just in case she wanted to murder her husband.  And it turned out she did.

But Percy suspects that he had beaten her.  And the husband smelled really bad and was always quite unpleasant to Percy.  So we are expected to rejoice that although she claimed that she didn't have the courage to leave him, she has somehow found it in herself to murder him, then sell his statue (which would be his corpse, right?) to a museum for a huge amount of money.  What fun!

I also had all kinds of issues with the writing.  I was annoyed by the undertones of "humans are hurting the gods by pollution and lack of open spaces".  I didn't believe the oft-repeated idea that Percy's ADHD and dyslexia are really just signs that he was a demigod the whole time.   (I have since learned that the author included that aspect for his own son, but still, it was bothersome to me as I was reading.)  I was very frustrated by the 24-style "flip" of a character from super-good to full-on villain with almost no explanation or foreshadowing.  I hated that the whole cross-country adventure of our hero was necessary because he can't fly on airplanes because he is the son of Poseidon and the sky belongs to Zeus, so he just can't fly.  Fine. Got it.  Then, he flies home.  He's worried, but he does it.  And Zeus doesn't kill him.  That's not okay with me.  You can set up the rules of your world, but then you have to follow them.

I guess that's the bottom line for me.  If I had connected with the writing more I would probably be trying to figure out a way for you to just discuss with your kids the problem areas of the book.  That's what I did with my son. But I just don't think the positives even come close to outweighing the negatives on this one.




If your kids have already read it or you plan to let them, you may wish to ask these questions:

  1. What are the consequences for the people and gods in this book who are involved in affairs outside of marriage?  For instance Percy's mother, Poseidon, Ares, Zeus?  What about all the children at Camp Half-Blood, none of whom has an intact family?  Do you think this is a good situation for them?
  2. What happens when we die?  Is it possible, as we read in this book that "Humans see what they want to see" after they die?  Would this be a dangerous thing to believe?
  3. Poseidon tells his son Percy "I am sorry you were born" and calls him an "unforgivable mistake."  Do we believe that there are children who should never have been born?  Does OUR God ever make mistakes?
  4. Percy's mother thinks that her life wouldn't "mean anything" if she let someone take care of her.  Do you agree with this?
  5. Percy decides not to kill his stepfather.  But he leaves the head of Medusa for his mother, and she uses it to kill her husband, since he is very mean and beats her.  Is it morally acceptable to kill someone under these circumstances?  Did Percy help his mother by leaving this weapon for her?
If you don't want to have these discussions with your child, you should really skip this book.

So, what to read instead?  I have a stack of newer YA and middle grade fantasy books that I'm going to read for Jack (and for you guys).  But since I haven't gotten to those yet, I'm going to have to go with Chronicles of Narnia and the Redwall Series.  They are a similar reading level, and are full of quests and adventures that boys love.  They also have a beautiful moral message, and a congruous fantasy world that doesn't break its own rules.

Update: You might also be interested in this post Encouraging Discerning Readership in Children (and an update to my Percy Jackson review)

Update #2: I had an interesting discussion with Charlotte from Waltzing Matilda in the comments of her review of this book. I think she may have changed my mind about whether Percy's Mom killed Smelly Gabe, or if it wouldn't be more accurate to understand that she has imprisoned him eternally. I still don't love this book. I still do think it can be read with guidance, but wonder why you would bother. But I really do think Charlotte has a point on the murdering thing.

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12 comments:

  1. thanks for the thorough review!

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  2. I let my son start it too, because everyone else I know let their kids read it and said it was fine . . . luckily he did not like it and stopped after the first chapter.

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  3. I've actually read the whole series, and enjoyed it. But it's interesting to read about it from the perspective of a parent reading it to clear it for a child. It probably won't be cool by the time my kids are into YA books (which I also love).

    Love all the Narnia books. Haven't read the Redwall series, might need to check it out!

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  4. Thanks for the review! All my kids, but especially John (7), love mythology. Some of our favorite greek myths are The Golden Fleece, by Padriac Colum (which we found on CD), Mary Pope Osborne's "Tales From the Odyssey" (good read-alone for 2nd or 3rd grade), and D'Aulaires' "Book of Greek Myths". As you noted, mythology is full of immoral stuff that needs to be discussed with kids, but I these are good options.

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  5. ooh ooh. got one...just read aloud "Land of Stories" by Chris Colfer. We really ran up the library tab on that one because it took forever but it was pretty interesting. Being a fairy tale aficionado you may enjoy previewing it. I can't quite remember all the pertinent messages but one was not to judge people by appearances or reputation. The writing wasn't the best, admittedly, and it was hard keeping track of all the voices I had created but the kids were riveted...even my 8 yo boy. My kids never read the Lightning Thief and it is recommended by anyone we come into contact with. My husband always forces kids to read Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller. Sad!

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  6. My son has read the entire series, as well as the follow-up series (Heroes of Olympus), and Riordan's Kane Chronicles. He had extensive exposure to Greek Mythology before-hand. He also has ASD and ADHD. I allowed him to read the books because of his enjoyment of Riordan's 39 Clues Series; and finding books that he will actually read is extremely difficult. Does this mean I will allow him to read anything so long as he has an interest in it? Of course not. However we add one more element that helps, similar to your list of questions. We get the books on CD from the library and listen to them in the car. Here I have a captive audience and I control the power button; which means I can pause it at any time and ask questions or have a discussion on a particular part of the story. We have had some pretty good discussions this way (ok, as good of a discussion as you can get with a child who doesn't like to communicate). I struggle frequently to to find books that are appropriate AND that will capture his attention - it is increasingly difficult. I'm hoping I can get him into the Redwall Series, I tried a few years ago, but he wasn't at all interested. Perhaps another attempt is warranted.

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    1. Heather, I love that you mention listening in the car. We have really great luck with that too. I'm going to have to update the main post because lovely people like you keep emphasizing the point that this is a book that can absolutely be read and enjoyed with a bit of guidance. I just worry about it as a let your kid read it alone because so many people recommended it kind of book.

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  7. The PJO series is actually my favorite. Seeing the lack of fiction/fantasy/adventure/YA lit suitable for Catholics in the market, I think its quite understandable why my choice of books are limited. (Plus, i live outside America, where in book supply is not that many)

    I read this when I was 12, and I had no problems with it. Its probably because I was born in a conservative Catholic family and been taught about Her teachings all my life.

    I LOVE reading books and i really believe that the main reason why I dont get confused about my faith when I read books such as the PJO is that I separate fiction from what I believe in, which is the Catholic teachings.

    And besides, when your kids have some problems/questions about the faith and are afraid to confide it to you, they can always google them. (but they MUST look for answers from fellow Catholics too though, like Catholic Answers website)

    I am now 19 and I still enjoy fantasy/YA/fictional books with varying belief system, yet I could still say that Im a Catholic through and through :)

    Anyway, you are indeed right. This series is actually a decent read, but there should be some guidance from the parents too.

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  8. I'm really grateful for this review. I'm a regular reader here, but somehow missed this along the way, or it wasn't pertinent to my readers at the time it was published, I'm not sure. Anyway, today I was thinking about requesting this book from the library for my oldest daughter (10 - and voracious reader), but Googled "catholic review Percy Jackson" on a hunch first.
    Thank you, Kendra, for the thorough look at this book. I think we'll be skipping it for now.

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  9. I am an atheist, so some things in this book that are troubling to a Christian do not matter to me, but I fully agree with you about the murder of Gabe, Percy's stepfather. To me, it was not justified by any means. Percy's mother thought that her marriage was good for her son, so she endured the beatings and other abuse from her husband. She was living in a civilized country, she could file for divorce any moment she liked, but preferred not to. Fine. When, finally, she no longer needed her husband, she could divorce him. Instead, she murdered him and his 3 friends, who had never beaten her, and sold their "corpses".

    On the other hand, fictional atrocities impress adults more than kids. Folk tales are full of such absurd revenges by the "good guys".

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    1. Yeah, even crazy Catholics support civil divorce in the case of abuse, (we just don't support remarriage afterwards). No need to murder anyone.

      A while after I wrote this, a teenager from our homeschool group came up to me and said she thought that the mom hadn't murdered the husband, that it was more of a life imprisonment, like Superman does to the bad guys in the first Superman movie. I've been meaning to go back and read the end with that in mind and see if it works. But we don't own the book and every time we've been to the library in the past, oh, four years or so, I've forgotten.

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