Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading Myths and the Myths of Reading

I had a wonderful time giving the first keynote address for the International Reading Association today in San Antonio. If you're curious, below is the text of my speech:

Reading Myths and the Myths of Reading


The first time I spoke at an IRA convention was right here in San Antonio in 2005. The Lightning Thief had just come out and there were 15 people in the room. You guys have multiplied!

It’s an honor to be back, and it’s amazing to reflect on all that’s happened in the last eight years. For me personally, it’s been quite a ride. In 2005, I was a full-time middle school teacher about to take the scary plunge into full-time writing and I had no idea how that was going to go. If I was known for my novels at all, I was known for some adult mystery novels I’d written, set here in San Antonio. But once I quit teaching middle school, I let that series fall away. Being out of the classroom, I lost my motivation to contemplate murder.

In the last eight years, I’ve written five Percy Jackson novels, three novels about Ancient Egyptian myth, the Kane Chronicles, and now I’m in the home stretch of a second series about demigods in the modern world, The Heroes of Olympus. I’ve received thousands of letters from reading teachers across the world, sharing their sharing success stories of using my books to turn kids into readers. It may sound trite, but as teachers you’ll probably believe me when I say that stories like that are the greatest rewards I can imagine for doing what I do.

So what am I up to now? I just sent the fourth Heroes of Olympus book to my editor. It’ll be coming out in October. The title is The House of Hades, which one reader said sounded like a great place to get a late-night breakfast. The title has caused some confusion online. Another fan wrote that she was extremely anxious to read The Hose of Hades – just to be clear, that’s a totally different book.

But today, I thought I’d talk about my experiences with reading mythology – personally, with my sons, and of course with my own students. I call this ‘Reading Myths and the Myths of Reading.’ I’m going to share with you three things I’ve learned about reading myths and why they resonate so well with kids. Then I’ll share with you three myths about reading that over the years, with the help of my students and now my readership, I’ve managed to bust.

Reading Myths

So why are we still reading mythology, even though many of these stories are over three thousand years old?  Why should we be reading myths with our students? First answer:

1.     Mythology has something for every reader.  It’s a rare form of literature that appeals to almost every reader. In fact, mythology may be unique in this regard. I couldn’t always get each of my students interested in poetry, or nonfiction, or realistic fiction, but with very little effort, I could engage pretty much 100% of the class in a mythology unit. I don’t think it’s an accident that the first type of literature singled out as mandatory in the common core is the classic myth.

You want edgy romance for your ‘new adult’ readers? Check. Forget 50 Shades of Grey. Relationships don’t get much more sadomasochistic than the marriage of Hera and Zeus.

You want adventure for your reluctant readers? Check. You can plunge into the depths of Tartarus or climb the heights of Olympus. You can descend into the Labyrinth to fight the Minotaur or track down a dragon guarding a horde of golden apples at the end of the earth.

You want a thoughtful exploration of the human condition for the discerning future English teachers in your class? Again, check. Explain to me why Jason’s relationship with Medea falls apart, and you have delved deeply into why humans fall in love, why they break their word, why they seek revenge and forgiveness.  If you can understand why Hephaestus loves his parents, in spite of them chucking him off a mountain, or why Aphrodite is drawn to the blustery jerk like Ares, then you’ve understood something essential about what makes humans tick.

The deeper you go into mythology, the more you find. After writing five Percy Jackson books, I was sure I’d pretty much exhausted Greek mythology. Wrong! Even now, after writing four additional books about Percy’s world, I’m still finding myths I didn’t know about, and lessons that resonate.

Case in point: And I will announce this here for the first time, right now I’m working on a new book of the Greek myths, told from Percy Jackson’s point of view. My hope is to offer the original stories, but told in a modern perspective that appeals to our kids today. I decided to set aside the earlier anthologies, as much as I love them – Hamilton, D’Aulaires, Evslin, Greene – because the writing is a little dated. Instead, I’ve leapfrogged straight back to the primary sources. I’m using Ovid, Hesiod, Homer and many others, and trying to cast the entire scope of Greek mythology afresh. John Rocco, who does my covers, is illustrating, and we’re hoping to create something that’s going to be useful in your libraries and classrooms.

Anyway, one of my goals is to include lesser-known myths along with the ones kids often hear. Most anthologies only offer a taste of what’s available in the primary sources. While researching for the book, I came across one particular myth I’d never heard before, the story of Erisikhthon and Demeter’s sacred grove. Erisikhthon tries to cut down Demeter’s sacred trees and is cursed with eternal hunger.

As I was writing down this story, and it struck me: this is a myth about addiction. It perfectly captures the obsession and heartbreak of someone who devotes his life to chasing a need that can’t be satisfied. Erisikhthon loses his possessions, his pride, his house just to buy food that can never fill him. Finally he’s even willing to sell his own daughter to serve his need. It’s absolutely tragic, and it’s absolutely timely. Why are we not reading this myth with our middle school and high school kids? The story certainly struck me in a very personal way. Addiction is something I have seen in my friends, my family, and certainly in the lives of my students. And here it is, captured in a myth that is three thousand years old.

Mythology has something for every reader.

2.     My second observation on reading myths: They are especially good for kids in the middle grades.

We all know that different types of reading, different archetypes appeal to us at different ages.

Toddlers, especially my toddler sons, loved reading about dinosaurs and construction equipment, because these were big powerful things, and young boys like to dream about controlling powerful things because they don’t get a lot of control. Girls, I think, are drawn to stories about horses for much the same reason. It’s a way for them to literally put a saddle on this big scary world they’ve been dropped into, and put themselves in the driver’s seat.

What you find is that as kids get older, the symbols of power and identity that they’re drawn to become more and more human. Elementary school kids are drawn to superheroes, who are more powerful than dinosaurs and horses, but also more like regular people. In the elementary grades, kids are also introduced to the Greek gods, which makes sense, because Greek gods are our first superheroes. The girl who once told me that her favorite Greek god was Batman – she was on the right track. I mean it was much easier for the Ancient Greeks to deal with scary thunderstorms if they could think there was a human-like presence behind it – namely Zeus.

So Greek gods appeal to elementary school kids, but it’s really in middle school that the stories of the Greek heroes achieve full resonance. Let’s consider why. The heroes in myths are demigods – half mortal, half divine. When your dad is Zeus and your mother is a displaced mortal princess, you don’t belong in either world – Greece or Mount Olympus. You’ve got to carve out your own path, discover your hidden strengths, battle seemingly insurmountable forces and find your place in the world. This is the middle school experience. These kids are between worlds in every possible way. Physically they are between childhood and adulthood; socially they’re between family and friends; psychologically they are between concrete and abstract thinking. And throw in the hormones, and you’ve got a mix more volatile than centaur blood.  Our students aren’t sure who they are, how they self-identify, or where they belong. They can relate to being a demigod. Some days, the adults in their lives seem benevolent. Some days they seem as capricious as the Greek gods. And if you’ve ever dealt with a middle schooler, you know that they see every problem as an epic challenge. Homework is Herculean. A family vacation is a voyage that would daunt even Odysseus. Mythology hits the middle grades at exactly the right time to resonate. It gives them a safe, relatable, engaging context to explore their dreams and their emotions.

I recently had a kid ask me: “How do you write such a great page-flipper” I was tempted to tell the kid, ‘Well, I buy each page, make improvements, and sell it for a profit.’ But actually, when I’m using mythology, targeting the middle grades, page-flippers come pretty naturally. I draw on my years as a teacher. I imagine myself reading each book aloud to my kids fifth period after lunch. I’ve got to use humor. I have to hook them immediately with relatable characters, interesting situations, clear direct language and an engaging mystery.

Mythology fits the bill perfectly.

3.     Final observation on reading myths? They are excellent for classroom use.
The first time I attended IRA, I had just finished writing a 50-page teacher’s guide for The Lightning Thief, which pulled together all my favorite myth-based projects from fifteen years in the classroom. At the time, I brought copies for all the attendants. For some reason, they wouldn’t let me print copies of it for everyone here today, but it’s still available on my website if you’re interested, at

Now, I’m not saying that every mythology project I did will work for every teacher. For instance, when I brought out my barbecue pit, had the kids dress in togas, write prayers to the Olympian gods and do burnt sacrifices back in the 90s – that was perfectly acceptable for the small private school where I taught in San Francisco. I would not recommend in, oh, say, San Antonio. They tend to look askance at burning Barbie dolls to honor Aphrodite. The Olympian feast, however, complete with Greek delicacies, sports, and skits from mythology – that was a big hit when I taught in San Antonio, and Texas in August, I’ve learned, is a very close approximation for summer in Greece.

I know teachers will often say, ‘I don’t have time for extra things like feasts and games.’ I understand. I really do. I was there, too. I’ve taught public and private, in Texas and California, every grade from 5-12, and most of those years while I was full-time teaching, I was also writing a novel a year. So I get not having time and always feeling under pressure. But as much as possible, we need to experiment and make our classrooms engaging. We need to use as many multisensory approaches as possible when teaching reading, and mythology is the perfect subject matter for this. It is infinitely flexible and you can bite off as much or as little as you wish. The projects don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive, either. One-minute dramatic tableaux from the Greek myths are easy to do, they cost nothing, and they get the kids working in teams. They also appeal to your kinesthetic learners.  The myths really lend themselves also to short creative writing projects. In fact the concept for Percy Jackson had its genesis in an assignment I used to do in San Francisco, where my students would create their own demigod and describe a new adventure, using the framework of the hero’s quest.

Anyway, if you’re interested in seeing some of activities I’ve used, visit the website. I’ll add that many of the best ideas there came from other teachers, because after all, we teachers are followers of the god Hermes. When it comes to good ideas for the classroom, we are consummate thieves.

The other reason mythology works well in the classroom is that it is so integral to our shared cultural heritage. Mythology is everywhere – TV shows, movies, books, music, architecture, art. Why did Fluffy in Harry Potter have three heads? Greek myth. Why is the snake on a staff the symbol of medicine? Greek myth. Why was The Hunger Games such a blockbuster? Greek myth.

One of the first conversations I had with Suzanne Collins, long before Hunger Games, I was telling her how her series Gregor the Overlander had really saved my oldest son Haley in the days when he didn’t like reading. She told me she was working on a retelling of the Theseus myth – a story that became The Hunger Games. And she did it beautifully. In the Theseus myth, Crete is the evil empire. They have subjugated Greece, and every year as a show of fealty, the Greeks must send fourteen tributes – seven young men, seven young women -- to the Cretan capital to descend into the Labyrinth and fight the Minotaur. None ever return, until Theseus breaks the cycle. Why does The Hunger Games resonate? Because Suzanne did a marvelous job reworking an ancient story that speaks to every age – an oppressive government with unreasonable demands, a conquered people trying to maintain their dignity, a hero who must decide to risk everything for a cause. Could you get by in life without knowing mythology? Sure. But the world is a much richer place if you understand the mythological context in which we live. It’s the difference between watching a movie and watching a movie in high def. 3D.

 Final thing I’ll say about mythology in the classroom, I still get tons of great ideas from teachers and kids. In a slow week, I get about 500 letters.  One project I heard about last week definitely stood out. A seventh grader named Kelly wrote from Collegeville PA. She said she’d been assigned to do an obituary on me. She was supposed to find out where I currently lived and who lived with me. As far as I know, I have done nothing to offend Kelly or her teacher. I did not share the information, however, as I would prefer my obituary to be written at a much later date.

Myths of Reading

So that’s my three cents on why we should be reading myths. Now here are three myths about reading that I’ve encountered, and busted.

1.     Reading is a Dying Habit. I can’t remember a time when we weren’t, as a society, bemoaning the death of reading. Recently I learned about a group of concerned parents that was petitioning the government to put limits on this new form of media that they believed was ruining our children and keeping them from more wholesome activities like playing outside and reading great literature. This new media was radio. The decade was the 1930s. Society was up in arms because programs like Dick Tracy and The Shadow were promoting violence and romanticizing gangs. In the 1950s, the great devil was television. In the 1970s, arcade games. In the 80s, video games. In the 90s, the Internet. And now, of course, social media.   I’m sure sixty years from now, when our youngest students are grandparents, they will be decrying the death of literate society and vilifying the new media of their day, looking back with nostalgia on how ‘everybody read’ when they were young.

Am I being facetious? Of course. But I also think that reports of the death of reading, like the death of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Kids do read. I really can’t help but be optimistic about the future of reading when I see the crowds that come to my events. Last year I was in Boston at a Barnes & Noble in October. The temperature was below freezing, but over a thousand kids and their parents were lined up outside in a dark parking lot behind the store by the dumpsters, waiting to get in just to get a book signed and say hi to me. I mean, first, that’s pretty humbling to me. But they were there because of books. They wanted to ask what I was reading. They wanted to tell me their favorite characters. They wanted to brag about how they got in trouble in math class because they were caught reading my books when they were supposed to be doing fractions. I hear that a lot, for some reason. Sorry, math teachers. Last spring, I was Redwood City, California and met a family that had driven all the way from Nevada to get their books signed. Before that, I met a family that had driven from Pennsylvania to South Carolina just for a book signing. One time, I met a family who had driven from San Antonio to Dallas for one of my events, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was going to be at an event in San Antonio the next evening.

My point is: kids do get excited about books. They get very excited indeed. At my events, you’ll meet hundreds of parents who are more than happy to get their kids out in whatever kind of weather since the cause is reading. You’ll see an almost equal gender divide, boys and girls. You’ll see college-aged kids standing happily next to eight-year-olds, celebrating the same books. It’s enough to make me very optimistic. And it’s not just my books. Go to a Jeff Kinney event sometime. Go to a Suzanne Collins event. Go online and look at the tremendous enthusiasm for the books of Cassandra Clare or Veronica Roth.

Kids are reading. They will read, as long as we put the right books in their hands. Which brings me to my second myth to bust.

2.     One Book Fits All. As much as I love mythology, and as universal as I believe it is, I also know that every type of reading does not appeal to every reader, nor is there any single book that will make an entire diverse class of students light up as one and say, ‘Eureka, I love reading!’ Mythology is as close as I’ve come, and possibly Harry Potter, but even with those wonderful books, there are some kids who just don’t care for them. My own sons, for whatever reason, are two Potter-haters.

Kids are different, and they need different books. The book that turns an eighth grade girl in rural Texas into an avid reader may not be, probably will not be the same book that ignites the interest of a eighth grade boy in urban California. Having taught in both places, I can attest to this. One of my biggest challenges as a teacher was choosing my reading texts – trying to pick a set of books, poems and stories that would reach the widest range of students and have the greatest impact. That was when I was allowed to choose my books. Increasingly, classroom teachers don’t even have that luxury.

Despite this, I think it’s incumbent upon us to take our young readers from where they are, and do our best to match the book to the child. I am not a big fan of ‘the 10 Books Every Child Must Read.’ Rather, I think we should find ten books for each child that makes that particular child love reading.  Reading should be a buffet with an array of choices, not a prix fixes meal where everyone gets the same thing at every course. Of course, as educators, this makes our job much harder. It requires us to be experts on a huge number of texts rather than just a few. The good news is we’re in the middle of a Renaissance of children’s and young adult literature. In the 1990s, when I tried to put together reading lists that would get my students motivated, the pickings were slim. I mean for reluctant reader boys, I could only recommend Hatchet so many times. Children’s literature was the poor stepchild of publishing and certainly was not a viable way to make a living. Then JK Rowling came along. Suddenly the publishing industry realized that children’s fiction could be a powerhouse if they found books that actual kids actually liked to read.

Now, literature for young readers is the place to be. It’s the dynamo that’s keeping publishing houses going despite all the changes in the industry. As educators, we have so many wonderful books to choose from. We just have to allow that the books we might personally love may not be the ones that speak to our kids. I found out that the hard way when I tried to share Charlotte’s Web with my boys. No way. Then my wife tried to share The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Forget it. They just didn’t connect for our kids, so we had to find books that did: Gregor the Overlander, The Time Warp Trio, Skulduggery Pleasant and Bone. To quote Atticus Finch, ‘you never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ We must be many things as reading instructors, but above all, we must be empathetic. The best way we can create lifelong readers is by making reading a big tent, treating each reader as individual, taking them from where they are and helping them explore their interests. Getting them to read is much more important than requiring them to read x, y, or z. Reading is an ongoing adventure, not a checklist.

3.      The final myth is very much connected to this: Some kids are just reluctant readers. You’re not going to reach everyone. I don’t believe this, primarily because I was the reluctant reader. If I had been in your elementary school class, you never would have identified me as a future reader, much less an English teacher. And a guy who would someday write twenty novels? Yeah, right! In third grade, I would diligently go through the Scholastic Book Club order form and check every item that was not a book. In middle school, the only poem I ever wrote was a satire demonstrating how ludicrous poetry was. By the way, it was mistakenly submitted to the school literary magazine and published to great acclaim. In high school, I never read a single assigned book. Not one. BSed my way through English for four years. Of course, my karmic punishment was that later I became an English teacher and had to go back and read all those texts. You couldn’t find a reader much more reluctant than me.

What turned things around for me? Some good parenting and a good teacher. My mom always read to me, even though I wasn’t a kid who would ever pick up a book by myself. Then when I was about twelve she introduced me to the Lord of the Rings. For me, that was the gateway series. It was the first thing I ever read because I wanted to. Fortunately, my mom was able to steer me toward an 8th grade English teacher who had done her thesis on Tolkien. That teacher, Mrs. Pabst, was the first teacher that ‘got me’ as a reader. She said, “Hey, if you like Tolkien, you should check out Norse mythology. That’s where Tolkien got his inspiration.” This was the beginning of my transformation. It took years, but it’s no accident that I eventually became a middle school English teacher, or that I began writing about mythology.

Both my sons were also reluctant readers. My oldest son Haley was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade. Reading was tough for him. Percy Jackson began as a bedtime story to keep him interested in school. Now, as he graduates from high school, Haley is not only a good reader, he’s finishing up work on his first manuscript, and in the fall he’s heading to Emerson College to study creative writing and publishing. What made the difference for him: paying careful attention to his needs and interests as a reader, even to the point of creating stories for him if none caught his interest.

As for my younger son Patrick, he isn’t a big fan of assigned texts. Ask Patrick his opinion of the Newbery Award sometimes. You’ll get an earful. And yet, he’s become a huge reader, because we’ve allowed him also to pick his favorite texts and explore new authors. We’ve simply set the expectation that he read something. We model reading at home. We talk about books. And it’s okay for him not to like a book, as long as he keeps searching for some he does like. Patrick has also become my frontline editor. His mechanics scores on the ERBS are off the charts. A few years ago he agreed to edit one of my books, and ended up making four hundred dollars at $10 a mistake.

I write for the reluctant reader, because that kid is me. That kid is like my sons. Believe me, if this guy up here can become a reader, any kid in your school can become a reader. It only takes one good teacher, and one good book. My challenge to you, and my lifelong challenge to myself: be that teacher and find that book.

Finally, I’ll close with a review I got from a young person on Amazon recently.  Bailey read the Mark of Athena and writes: “This book is my favorite in the series and I can’t say anything is wrong with it. If you don’t like the book that is ok just lie down with your head in the door and let me slam it about 5000 times.” – which I think shows how reading makes us all better people.

Thank you and happy reading!