I'll admit it, I've got a few reading weaknesses. We all resolve to read a wide variety of authors and genres, and then we secretly just read what we like, over and over again. Dickens novels. Picture books. And kids fantasy books. Those are my big weaknesses.
I like to think I'm well-versed in kids fantasy books, but recently I've come to realize I've just hit the tip of the iceberg. If this genre was the Beast's library, I'd only have read one shelf. So, I set myself the goal of reading some more of this genre this summer. I've got The Lightning Thief, Inkheart, The Bartimeus Trilogy, and Septimus Heap (Magyck) all lined up for this summer. And I thought I'd start with The Lightning Thief.
Unfortunately, not everything was roses and peaches.
I was distinctly whelmed. I wasn't overhwlemed. But I wasn't underwhelmed. I was just plain whelmed. (Side note, using that word should be a thing. Rather than meh. Anyhow.)
There was plenty I enjoyed about Percy Jackson and his merry band of followers. Every now and again, I found something to chuckle at. Good example: the sign for DOA Recordings is "No Soliciting, No Loitering, No Living." I'll admit, I got a giggle out of that. Percy sticks to his guns pretty well. But come to think of it, that's kind of annoying, too. There's no major struggle with him. Aside from the fact that he doesn't like being the plaything of the gods, his moral compass never really wavers. He's never swayed or tempted. For someone who has a lot to be resentful about, he sure doesn't seem to bothered by it.
Really, though, I found more things about this book that I didn't like than I did. It was hard to let go of the teacher in me when it came to Percy as a student. My (mostly) internal dialogue kept saying things like, "stop using your disabilities as a crutch to do poorly in school!" And it made me feel less sympathetic. What kind of lousy hero doesn't even try to succeed in regular life? I didn't really like his friends. Okay, I didn't really like Grover. He vacillated between being on the verge of tears and raging at someone or something for not treating the earth right. Annabeth was okay. She was at least a tad conflicted. But pretty quick to give up on years of prejudice and in-bred teachings.
But I'm not here to rag on Percy today. (Look for my review on Goodreads, if you want a nice long rag.) I'm blogging about this because reading The Lightning Thief has made me realize why I like the kids fantasy books I do.
A tad morbid, yes. But death is possibly the most serious thing in life and the thing a majority of humans fear the most. It's the thing we've struggled mightly with for our whole existence. It's why we find comfort in ideas of an afterlife, because then death really doesn't matter. It's why we're worried there is no afterlife. Because then we do have to think about death. And maybe we'll be scared.
And a major reason of why so many of us like literature is because it gives us tools with which to grasp the ideas of dying and death. To know that someone else has these same fears is quite a relief and a comfort. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that death should be given some respect. It should not be treated so lightly. I've realized that all my favorite fantasy books do just this -- they take a long, hard look at death, and try and come to terms with it. In a relatively serious manner. I think the trigger for this realization was Percy Jackson. Death is treated with such levity in this first book. There's never a true, threatening sense of death, no genuine fear. Yes, they go down to the Underworld and yes, it's pretty scary, but those scenes seem to lack conviction. Hell, I wasn't scared. I wasn't even vaguely upset. It was kind of ho-hum. And anytime Percy's kind of teetering towards death or at least serious illness/injury? A deus ex machina saves him at the last minute. Again, very ho-hum.
Is it just me, or do I expect more out of my reading, even if it's for kids? One of the reasons I love teaching the grade I do is because kids will do amazing things when you treat them like people. When you stop talking down to them and start treating them like grown-ups and give them grown-up expectations, they will actually rise to the challenge. And so I don't want the books my students' read to talk down to them, to treat them like kids, and to fail to challenge them in new ways. Oh, sure, there's no harm in a popcorn read from time to time, something fun and fluffy, but why can't something be fun and stretch the borders of your mind? Harry Potter certainly did that. What was the point of raising the bar that high if no one is willing to emulate it? I almost feel like I've been set up for disappointment. Because of Harry Potter, I've come to expect a certain level of writing out of my kids fantasy books. And when I don't get it, I'm crushed. And I write vicious reviews (I admit it).
But I feel strongly. And you know what? There are plenty of kids fantasy books out there that do something very similar to what Rowling did: they interweave the fun and entertaining with the serious and the challenging.
Guess this means I've just got to keep reading. Oh bummer. On to the next!