Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Titles: The Lightning Thief (#1); The Sea of Monsters (#2); The Titan's Curse (#3); The Battle of the Labyrinth (#4); The Last Olympian (#5)

Author: Rick Riordan

Rating: * (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
           Recommended with Reservations

Audience: Middle-schoolers

The Lightning Thief, first title in this series, left me eager to read more. Riordan has taken a classical idea (Greek mythology) and given it a fast-paced updating that appeals to today's youth. His protagonist/hero, Percy Jackson, is smart and sassy, but also nervous and unsure as he explores his new-found abilities as a human son of Poseidon. These emotions parallel many feelings of adolescence.

As the first book progresses, Percy encounters Greek Gods in all their capricious forms, as well as "half-blood" friends like himself. His character matures and grows in confidence as he triumphs through the many exciting (if somewhat unbelievable) plot twists.

The third book, The Titan's Curse, however, felt more like a grocery list of inexplicable adventures and monsters. On the positive side, Percy is fiercely determined to fight for the right side and rescue his friends. In fact, Athena points out "Your fatal flaw is personal loyalty, Percy. To save a friend, you would sacrifice the world. In a hero of the prophecy, that is very, very dangerous."

I also appreciate the fact the Percy starts his adventures by not fitting into societal norms. He struggles with ADHD in class and does not excel in school. It's clear he has trouble focusing and paying attention, but he is not a discipline problem per se and sincerely tries to do his best. This would be a helpful message for many families today.

So far language has not been a problem in the books. The kids speak casually, but not derogatorily. The only use of questionable language in the third book was one case of a child saying "oh my god" (the half-bloods will sometimes say "oh my gods" because Greek mythology is clearly not monotheistic), and one case of a character firing a sulfurous "fart" arrow. That was the only use of "potty" humor I've encountered.

Some Christians will question the value of a fiction series based on a pagan belief system. It is not a series I recommend for everyone. The best way to experience Greek mythology is with a copy of the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, as well as readable copies of The Iliad or The Trojan War (Olivia Coolidge is one author), and The Odyssey (The Children's Homer by Colum; The Adventures of Ulysses by Evslin; The Legend of Odysseus by Connolly). For families who have done that and are looking to engage their middle-schoolers during free-reading time, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a reasonable series. It's also valuable to point out to our children how infinitely superior our God and His character is when compared to the chaos and infighting exemplified among the man-made gods of Olympus.

I believe the Apostle Paul was well-educated in the philosophies of his day as well as mythology when he stood on Mars' (a.k.a. Ares, the Greek God of War) Hill and proclaimed "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; ...Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you...." Acts 17:22-34.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Rating: * (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
Recommended with Reservations

Audience: 3rd graders and up

What did I do all summer? I really did read a lot of kids' books and I will get my reviews in here soon. When reviewing a series, I prefer to read at least 2 titles before making a recommendation, so that is some of the delay in my posts.

My 4th grader has been eager to know if Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke would be appropriate for her. Actually, she's been asking since 3rd grade, so I am a little behind. I do recommend this book with some cautions for 3rd graders and up.

Mainly this is a harmless, magical tale of a homeless boy on a journey around the globe to rescue a dragon. Along the way, the boy (Ben) encounters Arabian culture (with a helpful djinn or genie) and Asian culture where dragons are considered good luck. Of course, Asian culture tends to be polytheistic and includes the possibility of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is mentioned briefly three times in the book: "These people believe we all live many lives on this planet." There is no value judgment placed on this or other beliefs; it is simply stated as background for Asian culture, which is an accurate portrayal. By that I mean, the author does not try to sway readers to adopt this belief.

For Christian families it would be reasonable to read this book while discussing differences between Eastern and Western cultures, their views of dragon mythology and the biblical account of life after death. Remind your children of the truth of Hebrews 9:27-28 and the hope this provides for all cultures.

I also hope to work up a review on Cornelia Funke's better known titles Inkheart, Inkspell an Inkdeath. Many times an author's later books reveal more of their personal philosophy as well as more mature themes. A recommendation of one book does not guarantee a blanket recommendation for others by the same author. If you have a perceptive child who anticipates reading everything by Funke after they sample Dragon Rider, warn them that might not be the case for your family.