Varda Epstein: The Problem with Percy Jackson

by Varda Epstein

As a mother, there’s nothing I like better than seeing my kids with their heads in books, so riveted to the material therein that calling their names brings no immediate response. But I do like to make sure my kids are reading something that’s good for the brain. I’m not against comic books if they get kids reading, as long as there’s some kind of message sprinkled in about being a decent human being. I’m not against fantasy if it stretches the mind.

The bottom line? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, I know good kid lit when I see it. But in order to see it, I have to read it myself. Sometimes that’s a tall order, while at other times I find myself enthralled by the text as if I were a kid myself.

When my kids started reading the Percy Jackson books, I did my due diligence only to discover that in Rick Riordan’s series, deficits are portrayed as superpowers. I couldn’t help but wonder about the repercussions of a narrative that calls a protagonist’s learning disabilities “superpowers.” Does this send a false message to the children who read this series?

It’s certainly true that Rick Riordan’s series about Percy Jackson has captured the imagination of children everywhere, not excluding the imagination of Riordan’s son Haley, who was the impetus for the Percy Jackson phenomenon. Percy Jackson was the protagonist of a bedtime story Riordan created for Haley who struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. The writer hoped that by turning these deficits into superpowers, Haley would find a way to embrace his disabilities and succeed in spite of them.

On this score, Riordan has been a rip-roaring success.  Percy Jackson helped Haley and other kids like him gain a different perspective on learning disabilities. Haley went from hiding under the table when it was time to do his homework to writing his own story manuscripts as an adult.

In the Percy Jackson series, all demigods have dyslexia. Without the learning difficulty, goes the storyline, demigods would not be able to read Ancient Greek. Percy Jackson’s dyslexia is therefore not a disability, but proof of his divinity. His dyslexia proves he is a demigod.

This is rich stuff for a kid with dyslexia to absorb. Children with dyslexia tend to suffer from feelings of inadequacy and poor self-esteem. The idea that a child’s disability is actually a superpower may help counter those feelings, but at what cost?

A parent might reasonably ask: “Is this an intellectually honest narrative? Does this narrative mislead children with disabilities?”

Percy Jackson’s popularity extends to children without disabilities. But children often find it hard to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. It’s just possible that some children who have no learning disabilities will end up wishing they too had dyslexia or ADHD so that they might have superpowers like Percy Jackson.  It’s also possible that children with disabilities will lord their so-called “superpowers” over their peers.

I thought about all this and then another thought came to me: what if a child with a reading difficulty or ADHD decides to refuse his accommodations and special classes because he fears he may be “cured” of his Percy Jackson superpowers?

Then there’s this: it’s not a little distasteful to lie to a child. A disability is no picnic and it seems morally abhorrent to present disabilities as miraculous powers. It seems wiser to let a child know that dyslexia is tough luck but that with help, you know s/he can cope.

To be fair, some experts have referred to reading difficulties as “the gift of dyslexia.” Dyslexia helps people to see outside the box to find creative solutions to problems. Dyslexia has been known to create canny and tenacious businesspeople. Disabilities of every kind, for that matter, have been known to spur people on to greatness.

A blind person, for instance, develops his other senses to compensate for the loss of vision. People who have vision impairment may excel as taste testers, piano tuners, or creators of perfume. But one would be hard-pressed to find someone who would call vision impairment a “superpower.”

If we want society to be sensitive to children with learning disabilities, we have to begin by seeing disabilities as they are. We want our children’s peers and educators to know that dyslexia has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence or lack of same. To that end, the charity for which I work, Kars4Kids, offers separate training for mentors on treating all children with respect.  At the same time, educators and afterschool program coordinators need to know that dyslexia makes it difficult for a child to read in any language, let alone in Ancient Greek.

Children love the Percy Jackson books and experts say that children should read whatever they like if they are to develop a love of reading. But it would make sense to discuss the series with your child and help him to read the real story of Percy Jackson — the one that must be read between the lines.

Varda Epstein writes on education and parenting as the communications writer at Kars4Kids, a car donation charity whose proceeds fund children’s educational initiatives.