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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
My second observation on reading myths: They are especially good for kids in the
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.
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 rickriordan.com.
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.
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.
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.
reading. They will read, as long as we put the right books in their hands.
Which brings me to my second myth to bust.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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!