Finding Identity, Family, and Community Alongside Percy Jackson

A few weeks before I started at middle school at Rio Norte Jr. High, I read a book called The Lightning Thief. My brother had won it from the Summer Reading Challenge at Barnes & Noble, but my mother, who was an elementary school teacher and who had heard good things about the book, encouraged me to read it, too. At first, I had refused. It seemed like a book for boys. It’s funny, in retrospect. I can’t imagine making that sort of distinction today. But I was twelve years old. I clung to the rigidity of the gender binary because I was aware, on some level, that I did not fit neatly within it, and being abnormal was something I deeply feared.

Eventually, my mom won me over (it was actually the trailer for the Percy Jackson movie that did it—oh, irony of ironies). I read The Lightning Thief a few weeks before the start of the school year, and on my first day at Rio Norte, I went to the library to borrow the second book in the Percy Jackson series, The Sea of Monsters. The next day, I went to check out The Titan’s Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth. There was some rule that prevented students from checking out multiple books from the same series at once, but the librarian—gods bless her—made an exception. I read a book a day for the rest of the week. By the weekend, I had finished the whole series.

If you had asked me, then, what I liked about Percy Jackson, I would have told you that I liked the adventure and the danger, the funny chapter titles, the magic. I liked Greek mythology, and I liked that I knew the heroes and gods and stories the books referenced. I liked Annabeth Chase, who was tough and determined and smart. I wanted to be a daughter of Athena. I wanted, in every way, to be like Annabeth.

Here’s what I’d tell you now: Percy Jackson is, at its core, about identity. It centers itself around family, around community. It reckons with bloodline and with lineage. Percy Jackson is about finding the parts of the self that matter. It’s about contextualizing the narratives we tell about ourselves. Its protagonists search for belonging and build it themselves when they have to.

I didn’t know I had ADHD when I read Percy Jackson. I wouldn’t receive that diagnosis until I was sixteen years old. But the lack of a diagnosis has little bearing on lived experiences, and much of the “abnormality” I felt and feared I now know were symptoms of my learning differences. There is a certain simple comfort in seeing parts of yourself – those parts you thought were different, strange, unacceptable – in the protagonists of a book. And Percy Jackson teaches us that heroes have ADHD.

Rick Riordan wrote his protagonists with learning differences as a tribute to his son, who, like Percy, was diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia. From the start, Riordan was invested in representation. He wanted his son to have heroes, too. Riordan recontextualizes learning differences as superpowers. Percy himself identifies his ADHD as a source of conflict early on in the first book; he at least partially attributes his six-year-long string of school expulsions to his hyperactivity. Yet as soon as he enters the secondary world of Camp Halfblood, his mentor, Chiron, offers him another perspective: ADHD, and hyperactivity especially, keeps demigods alive in a fight. It endows them with supernatural reflexes. Likewise, dyslexia is a side-effect of godly parentage; it is not an inability to read English so much as a mythic predisposition towards Ancient Greek.

The five books that comprise the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians series were published before I turned thirteen, but as I grew up, that universe expanded. In 2010, Rick Riordan released The Red Pyramid, the first book in The Kane Chronicles, a series about Egyptian mythology that exists tangentially to the Percy Jackson books. By the time I graduated from high school in 2015, Percy Jackson had received a sequel in the form of the five-part Heroes of Olympus series. The first books in the Norse mythology series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard and Trials of Apollo series were released the following year.

Though the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series subscribes to a certain heteronormative hegemony—Riordan continuously equates a happy ending with a heterosexual partnership, with few notable exceptions—its successive series break from that mold. They feature queer heroes: Nico DiAngelo, Will Solace, Lavinia Asimov, Alex Fierro, the god Apollo himself. These are heroes who are gay, who are bisexual, who are lesbian, who are trans. This was what brought me back to Riordan’s work at age 20. I was, by then, a college student, a creative writing major, the vice president of my school’s Queer Straight Alliance. I was long past the need for middle-grade fiction. And yet, I saw, all over again, narratives that felt familiar to me.

There were, at age twelve, so many aspects of my identity that I was oblivious to, so many words I now use to describe myself that I didn’t know at the time: ADHD, lesbian, genderqueer. Yet even when I didn’t have the language to describe them, these experiences resonated with me when I saw them reflected in the media I consumed. It is not a new or radical thing to say that representation matters. Representation normalizes divergent experiences and provides a system for contextualizing and naming them. Percy Jackson mattered to me because identity mattered to me. I found the series at exactly the right time; I was twelve years old, and I had just begun middle school. For me, seventh grade was an in-between year in an in-between place. I was transforming in the rapid way young people transform. I needed books like The Lightning Thief.

But the real gift of the Percy Jackson series is that it continued to be meaningful even as I grew up. As I discovered new aspects of my identity and new ways of being, I saw those experiences reflected in Riordan’s books. It was a shared process of discovery. The series aged with me. I saw myself in those books again and again and again.

Today, I’m a high school English teacher. I have students with learning differences, students who are gay, students who are trans. And I have a long list of books I recommend to my students: novels, short story collections, memoirs, poetry. I recommend the stories I think my students need, the ones that will stay with them as they grow older. Percy Jackson makes that list every time.

Originally published in June 2020.

Anneliese M. Gelberg (she/her or they/them) is a writer and high school English teacher from Los Angeles, CA. She is a graduate of Eckerd College, where she studied creative writing, and Smith College, where she earned her Master’s in Teaching. Today, Anneliese lives in St. Petersburg, FL and spends most of her time reading, writing, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. She can be found on twitter at @ann3liesemg.


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