Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson, a boy with serious problems at home and in school, discovers his father is an ancient Greek god. To save his mother and friends and prevent a war between the gods, Percy must find and return a lightning bolt stolen from the ruler of the gods . . . who believes Percy and his father are the thieves.
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1. This book made me laugh out loud or at least smile: 3. There’s a particularly funny scene near the end. In it, the god Hades describes the bureaucratic headaches he has running the underworld.
2. This book has good action: 5. Percy and his friends face lots of danger and fight just the right amount of battles—not too many, not too few, and a really big one in the end.
3. This book is suspenseful: 4. There are at least five suspenseful questions in the story.
- Which god is Percy’s father? If you’ve had Greek mythology in school, you’ll probably guess pretty quickly, but if you haven’t, the answer might surprise you. 2 points.
- Will Percy mange to return the missing lightning bolt to Zeus? Of course he will. The real question is how. 5 points (for how).
- If Percy and his father didn’t steal the lightning bolt, who did? This one will keep you guessing. 4 points.
- Which friend will betray Percy? This is more suspenseful at the beginning than at the end. If you’re observant, you’ll probably figure it out before it happens. 3 points.
- Will Percy free his mother from the underworld? Now this is a suspenseful one. For a long time, you really won’t know. 5 points
4. The ending does not disappoint: 4. I’m pretty sure you’ll like everything about the ending if you’re a kid. If you’re an adult, though, please see, “Any important issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?” below.
5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 3. If you’re a kid, you may get into these characters more than I did. I’m tough to please. To get a 5, the author would have to create someone I like as much as Huckleberry Finn, my favorite character ever.
1. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes, a group of three friends: one boy, one girl, and one male satyr (part goat, part human).
2. Is this a series or just one book? It’s a series, so if you like the first one, you can read the rest. There’s even a movie.
3. Does it get off to a fast start? Pretty fast, but not as fast as the first book in the writer’s next series, The Kane Chronicles. Still, the writer uses a neat trick to hook you and reel you into The Lightning Thief. You won’t be bored.
4. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yes, Percy’s teacher, Mr. Brunner.
5. Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? It doesn’t get mushy, but Percy has a friend and ally called Annabeth, and you can tell they’ll probably like each other more as the series goes on.
1. How old is the main character? Twelve.
2. What’s the major source of mystery/suspense? This is a classic quest tale, and the writer has built in multiple sources of suspense: Which god is Percy’s father? How will Percy succeed in returning the missing lightning bolt to Zeus? Who really stole the lightning bolt? Which friend will betray Percy? Will Percy free his mother from the underworld?
3. Which classic fantasy elements does this book contain? Mythical beings, magical items, a hero’s quest, and a hidden world (Olympus in Manhattan)
4. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? As far as I can see, tolerance and empathy are not major themes in the book. There is a scene in which the children empathize with and free captive and abused zoo animals.
5. Is there profanity? Not that I recall. When people swear they say things like, “Oh, Zeus!”
6. Is there violence? Plenty, including battles between a twelve-year-old and an ancient god, but none of it is realistic violence. The only violence that bothered me was some human-on-human violence at the very end.
I would have suggested this book to my son from about the age of ten, but kids differ.
7. Any mature themes or dark creatures? The issue of responsible vs. irresponsible parenting looms large in the book (see “Any important issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?” below), but nothing is presented in a way I consider inappropriate for most kids ten and above.
There are plenty of dark creatures. All of them are clearly mythical.
The god of the underworld, Hades, is the uncle of the main character. Riordan’s Hades isn’t the traditional Evil One of Christianity, but he’s no sympathetic good guy, either. There are hints that he may turn out to be an ally in the next books. The author paints Hades as a tricky, multifaceted individual—definitely an extremely dangerous supernatural being. I liked the portrayal, but then I like multifaceted antagonists like Snape and Moriarty.
8. What’s the take on religion and God in the book? The book is about the ancient Greek gods and goddesses—Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Ares, and the rest of the crew you remember from middle school.
I don’t think you need to be concerned that your child will start building alters to Poseidon, Zeus, Hades, or Athena after reading this book. The Greek gods and goddesses do not come off looking rosy. Your child will, however, learn about ancient Greek myths in a painless way, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion.
9. What about politics and government? As far as I could tell, politics and government aren’t drawn into the story in a major way. One intriguing exception is a scene near the middle of the book that features Ares, the god of war. In the middle of a diner, Ares pulls out a big knife and uses it to clean his fingernails. Percy objects to this intimidating use of a weapon in public. Ares responds, “Are you kidding? I love this country. Best place since Sparta. Don’t you carry a weapon, punk? You should. Dangerous world out there.” You could use this scene to start a discussion with your child on weapons, no matter where your views fall in the political spectrum.
10. Any important issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?
a. The parents in the book. If my child read this book (which he refuses to do because he already saw the movie) I would want to talk with him about the way the parents act throughout the novel, both with their children and toward each other. The mother, the stepfather, and the birth father all provide material for many conversations.
At the beginning of the book, for example, the mother is a study in contradictions. On the one hand, she’s sweeter than candy and willing to sacrifice anything for her son, yet she inexplicably stays in a marriage with the rotten and appropriately named Gabe Ugliano. Soon after the reader learns the reason for her apparent blind cruelty, she takes extreme revenge on the abusive Mr. Ugly. But get this: it’s her fault Mr. Ugly’s in their lives at all. For years, she’s been using him as a pawn in her plot to save her child. I think the writer intended for us to like her and approve of and feel satisfied by her actions, but I don’t. You’ll probably have your own take on this . . . and it’s something to talk about with your kids.
b. Violence as revenge. At the end of the novel, Percy has the chance to get rid of his evil stepfather—possibly even kill him—but he doesn’t. Why not?
c. Weapons in America. What do you and your child think about Ares’ comment on weapons in America? Is it OK to carry weapons, either concealed or unconcealed?
d. The role of Greece and the Greek gods in the history of western civilization. I would be surprised if there is not a lesson plan or series of lesson plans to go along with this book. In fact, I just went online and checked, and there are lesson plans. The author himself has one here, and Scholastic provides one here. I will not read them until I’m finished with this review, as I don’t want to be swayed.
e. Dyslexia and ADHD. The main character has both diagnoses, and the author explains them in original ways. What do you and your kids think? My son has dyslexia, and I’d like to mention is that this book is available as a graphic novel (graphic novels appeal to my son) and on Kindle (my child uses his Kindle’s robotic voice to listen to books over and over again).
11. Is this book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? No. Nice, short sentences, no hard words, lots of action, no odd dialects or anything like that.
12. How’s the writing? What are the author’s strengths and weaknesses? This is the hardest question for me to answer, probably because I’m a writer, and the closer I focus on a topic, the more confusing I find it becomes. In my opinion, the author excels at the mechanics of writing, at action sequences, at maintaining suspense, and at weaving together plot and subplot. The chapter titles are fantastic (“I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”), and provide the largest dose of humor that I remember from the book.
a. Quicker openings in later books. I found it instructive to compare this book with the writer’s later books for children. I’ve read two books in his later series, The Kane Chronicles. The Lightning Thief opens quickly, but the writer has polished this art to a high shine in The Kane Chronicles. The books in the later series grab readers and pull them in from sentence one. In The Kane Chronicles, the writer also widens his potential audience in myriad clever ways. For example, a sister and brother take turns narrating the second series.
b. Organic obstacles? In The Lightning Thief, only some of the obstacles seem to arise as a direct and natural (or even inevitable) result of the characters and events in the story. I love it when action feels inevitable. “Yes, of course,” you think. “That’s what would happen!” But Percy’s encounter with the Medusa, his visit to Lotus Land, and to a certain extent, even his trip to the amusement park at Ares’ request felt contrived to me. Perhaps the author intentionally put Percy through a traditional list of obligatory obstacles because that’s how a hero was tested in ancient Greek stories. Or maybe the effect was unintended. Either way, I would have preferred if the obstacles feel inevitable—like Percy’s encounters with the Three Furies, which felt entirely organic to me.
After I read the next books in the Percy Jackson series, I hope I’ll have a better idea of whether the set-piece effect in The Lightning Thief was purposeful or not. The contrived feeling is absent from the author’s next series of middle-grade books, which focus on Egyptian mythology.
c. Teacher mode. The writer is a former teacher who’s exceptionally close to the subject of mythology, and it shows. He clearly knows his stuff, which is great, but a couple of times he veers perilously close to teacher mode. The clearest example was early in the book, when he needs to provide some background information and has a teacher say: “Zeus did indeed feed Kronos a mixture of mustard and wine, which made him disgorge his other five children, who, of course, being immortal gods, had been living and growing up completely undigested in the Titian’s stomach. The gods defeated their father, sliced him to pieces with his own scythe, and scattered his remains in Tartarus, the darkest part of the Underworld.” Ouch. However, he doesn’t do this often, and he pulls back so fast that I don’t think the kids will notice.
d. Digging deeper. The Lightning Thief is probably not a book that grabbed a big adult readership. I caught glimpses of Riordan’s engagement and convictions—his personal passions or ideas—but not enough to engage me deeply. I don’t see deeper waters lurking below the surface the way I did in some books that shall not be named. (I’m entirely sure every fantasy author hates have their books compared to that series.) But Mr. Riordan has tremendous technical skill. He’s nailed his craft. If he does write something more deeply reflective of his convictions of heart or mind, I suspect the book would be a hit with adults as well as their children.
13. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? Nope. It’s fine.