Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Lightning Thief as a Derivative Work

I read The Lightning Thief by Rock Riordan with a bit of trepidation. My son, who is now ten, raced through the series and loved it, and now I am charged with teaching this novel instead of my typical sixth grade mythology unit. After having finished the novel, I have to say my concerns were justified and I'm honestly concerned that this novel is an inferior replacement for my self-designed unit.

My first issue is with the tone of the novel, which is comic and heroic. Things happen in often a silly way. Percy Jackson, the protagonist, is issued a sword in the novel for him to take on his heroic quest. Since twentieth-century characters can't be seen lugging swords about, this sword magically turns into a pen which our hero can safely put into his pocket. This works for the somewhat goofy tone of the book, but seems out of place in the myths themselves. They can be funny, exciting, terribly tragic, or empowering, but the silliness of the device as well as the convenience of it feels out of place. This is one of the great strengths of the myths, yet when the protagonist can whip a sword out of his pants pocket and duel a terrible monster, something seems wrong.

This is fine for the intended audience, but as a teacher I don't see my purpose as offering that sort of wish-fulfillment. Children certainly desire to slay monsters, especially late at night when those creature of the imagination seem real, but I think the myths serve a greater function in our culture. They teach us about the wide range of experience, and at times when this monsters under the bed are real. Yet these monsters are never easy things to kill, but I fear that's what this book teaches. As long as you're half god, of course.

When assigning a book as a unit, one needs to look at the goals of the unit. If the goal is to teach Freek mythology, I wonder why don't we have a unit that does just that? I suspect one of the reasons is that there is no good middle school text for Greek mythology. I've looked, and there is none. (Which may be a project of mine in the future.) The EngageNY folks clearly don't have the expertise to write one themselves, so they're looking to this novel as a gateway.

After teaching Greek mythology for the last nine years to sixth graders, I have never seen a problem with the source material being boring. Quite the contrary, these are some of the best stories of Western culture. That's why I think The Lightning Thief is a poor choice to teach these myths: it substitutes an inferior work for simply teaching some absolutely fabulous tales.

I'll have more to say about this novel as I teach it, of course.


  1. I'm loving the way you're thinking about this unit, its purpose, how it might or might not work, how your job is to introduce kids to the stuff they don't pick up on their own, and how an assessment shouldn't be about checking off boxes but about demonstrating authentic learning.
    I taught middle school for 10 years until my kids were born (mostly art, but also some English), but I taught at private schools and had the luxury and the responsibility of creating my own curriculum. I'd go nuts if I had to teach a unit in a way that I didn't think made sense!
    I also appreciate what you're saying about the strengths and importance of mythology. I believe that speculative fiction is vital not merely for entertainment, but also for moral exploration for all ages. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you, Anne. I hope this project will become valuable. If we're going to talk about Common Core, we need to have experience with it and not just criticize it from afar.