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Changing the way kids look at the world, one book at a time

By Kate Snow
Rock Center correspondent

I’ll start with a confession.  I had never heard of Rick Riordan or his empire.  I know.  I know.  What am I living in a cave?

I have a nine year old son and a six year old daughter.  My kids were just a hair too young to have discovered Percy Jackson & the Olympians on their own.  But when I was asked by Rock Center to interview and profile Riordan, the first thing I did was read the very first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief.  The second thing I did was start reading it aloud to my son. 

Rick Riordan does not put on airs.  He is just about the most humble author I’ve ever met.  The man has sold 30 million books and yet he still drives around his hometown of San Antonio in an aging SUV.  He did move his family into a beautiful new house after hitting it big with Percy Jackson, but he still works out of a small home office in the back.

Rick Riordan's third 'Kane Chronicles' book debuts in May.

“I'm very blessed to have a lot of very grounded people in my family, especially my wife, who has been with me for 26 years.  And she would not tolerate me getting a big head.  She just wouldn't put up with it,” Riordan joked in our interview.

Riordan’s books are all some combination of modern day kids and ancient mythology.  Percy Jackson is a boy who has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia.  He struggles in school.  But then one day he figures out that those disabilities give him superhuman powers.  He is, as it turns out, half human and half Greek god—a “demigod”.

We gathered a group of kids at Book People, a fantastic privately-owned book store in Austin, Texas, to talk about Riordan’s books.  Most of these kids had spent some time at a summer camp organized by Book People that revolves entirely around the Percy Jackson series and replicates the fictional Camp Half-Blood from the books.

As a mother, what struck me most was just how passionate these kids are about reading.  Several of them told me they’d never read an entire book or a series of books before Percy Jackson came into their lives.

Steven Thames said he likes the books because they’re funny. River Stevens said, “I like the books, 'cause they're kind of engaging and there's adventure and you can learn about Greek Mythology.”  

When we were done with that big group interview, their mothers thanked me.  They said they wanted the world to know the impact Rick Riordan’s books were having on their kids, on a whole generation of young people.

At Riordan’s house, I saw the mail bag that arrives every week from his publisher.  It is jammed with one envelope after the next – most with the address written in the careful lettering of a child’s hand. 

“Aren't they awesome,” Riordan said as we sifted through the pile.   “And you know… we love to go through and just look at where they're all from, and which ones are school projects and which one are individual.”   We were looking at mail from West Palm Beach, Florida and Oakridge, Tennessee; Muscatine, Iowa and McGrath, Alaska.  Just to name a few.

Rick tries to read every letter.  There’s no way he can respond to every single one.  He used to.  But now there just isn’t enough time in the day.  But fans should know—he does read them.

Mary Elizabeth from Orem, Utah wrote to tell Riordan she’s reading the Percy Jackson series for the 20th time.  Lamar in McGrath, Alaska said, "I think you should write a book about aliens.”

And many kids write who have ADHD or dyslexia.  Those letters mean a lot to Riordan.

"Dear Rick Riordan, the Percy Jackson series has changed the way I look at the world, and everything about me,” begins a letter from Ruby Henson, 9 — one of the young people we met at Book People in Austin.  “I used to hate books, and it was hard for me, because I have dyslexia and ADHD.  I still don't like to read.  But when it comes to your books, all of that changed.  It's just like you can't stop reading, you have to just keep on going.”

“Thank you, Ruby, I appreciate that,” Riordan said when I read him Ruby’s letter.

“You know, those are the kinds of responses that mean the most to me.  That's why I do what I do.”
And you get the sense… he really means it.

Editor's note: Watch Kate Snow's full report, 'The Gift,' from Rock Center with Brian Williams: