Rick Riordan, author of the popular Percy Jackson series, has some very loyal fans among the prepubescent set. But none of them is a bigger fan than my 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, who has enjoyed the adventures of the Young Olympians since I bought her a paperback copy of The Lightning Thief three years ago. I remember telling her at the time that several booksellers had mentioned it to me, so it must be a good read. Even though that first book was obtained a year after its 2005 pub date, Rachel has gotten her hands on every other Percy Jackson book on its street date.
When I told Rachel that Riordan would be stopping in St. Paul, Minn. during his 14-day, 15-city, 17-bookstore/library tour promoting The Last Olympian, the fifth and final Percy Jackson adventure, she suggested—no, she demanded—that we make a road trip to the Red Balloon Bookshop to meet Riordan.
Never mind that it’s 150 miles each way; never mind that Riordan was scheduled to appear at the Red Balloon on a school night; never mind that this would be my fourth road trip to the Twin Cities that week. “Carpe diem,” Rachel told me. Or words to that effect.
As I picked Rachel up after school, Jill Lyman, manager of the Duluth, Minn., B&N happened to walk by my car, the backseat covered with Moleskine notebooks, Rachel’s Riordan books, a bag full of snacks, and our coats. Her eyes widened as we told her we were embarking on a road trip to meet Riordan. Wishing us a good journey, she invited Rachel to the store’s Young Olympians toga party this summer. “Will Rick Riordan be there?” Rachel asked. Ah, to be young and in love with books and their authors.
It was the perfect day for a road trip: sunny and warm, the lakes lining I-35 sparkling in the bright sunlight. As we sped south, we listened to the Lightning Thief audiobook Rachel’s father had downloaded onto her iPod the day before. After a while, Rachel started re-reading the print book, because, she told me, she prefers reading to listening (this is why I’m convinced print books will prevail, even with the next generation of literati being so electronics-savvy).
It was obvious to me, as we neared the Red Balloon a full 90 minutes before the event was to begin, that there would be a crowd. Cars filled the streets, and parents with their children, many of them carrying books, strolled on the sidewalks. There was a palpable excitement in the air. I was just grateful that Amy Baum, the Red Balloon’s events coordinator, had secured a parking spot for me behind the store, in a place of honor next to Riordan’s parking spot (both of them marked off with red helium balloons tied to red chairs).
The event actually took place at the St. Paul United Church of Christ around the corner from the bookstore. A line of people had formed at its front entrance an hour before the doors were to open at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. event. Since Hyperion publicist Deborah Bass had invited me to interview Riordan before the program began, Rachel and I waited with Red Balloon staff at the back entrance to greet him. As his car pulled up, Rachel squeezed my arm and literally jumped up and down with excitement. Baum introduced us to Riordan, and escorted us all to the church’s “bride’s room,” to conduct the interview.
Mindful of Rachel’s advice to me earlier to “keep your mouth shut, and let me do the talking,” because I had not read any of his books, I asked Riordan only a few questions before turning it over to Rachel.
Asked about the crowds that have been greeting him at his appearances, such as 4,200 people who turned out on March 5 at Bookpeople in Austin, Tex., Riordan described it as a “surreal” experience (the store estimated that he signed 5300 books at the event, including backlist titles).
“I wrote for 10 years before I even started the Percy Jackson series,” he explained. “For a long time, I’d go to a bookstore [signing] and there’d be two people there, if I was lucky. If five people came, I’d feel like a real success. So, to do these events, where 600 people show up, that’s just unbelievable. That’s the average, 600. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
But Riordan says he’s enjoyed every moment of it, even though it means days filled with signing bookstore stock before having to sign hundreds more books at evening events for eager readers, who often hand him multiple copies. But it’s all about connecting with his young fans, he says.
“Kids ask me questions. You’d think after doing this for four years, I would have heard every single question anyone could think of to ask, but no, every time, they surprise me, they ask me something I never thought of before. They show up in costume, they bring me stuff—they give me short stories they’ve written, poems and artwork. Someone brought a wooden Percy Jackson racing car he’d made with a trident on it.”
While the Percy Jackson series is drawing to an end, Riordan’s many fans will be heartened to discover this isn’t curtains for the Young Olympians. Riordan has disclosed that next year he will launch a second series of books set at Camp Halfblood, which will take place several years after The Last Olympian, with a different cast of characters.
“Percy and Annabeth will be there, but they won’t be the main characters,” Riordan said, “It’ll be a lot of fun—a way for me to both end it with a strong ending and not end it.”
It was now Rachel’s turn to question the author, and she scored a scoop about the new series, but only after he’d made sure that she’d finished reading The Last Olympian.
“You know that prophecy at the end that Rachel has?” he confided. “That’s what the second series is about. You’re going to find out what that prophecy means. And the thing about the seven halfbloods? That’s a reference to the seven main characters you are going to find throughout the series.”
After Riordan answered the rest of Rachel’s questions, signed her books, showed off the flip video camera Disney had given him, and posed for some photos, my daughter and I joined the 900 adults and children awaiting Riordan, many of the boys and girls clutching all five titles in the Percy Jackson series (in hardcover, no less). I felt a sense of déjà vu: even though we were sitting in a church, it had all the ambiance of a rock concert (without the beer or pot); the anticipation was steadily building as the minutes ticked by. People started talking with those seated near them in the long pews about—what else?—Percy Jackson.
“It’s cool how Annabeth and Percy stick up for each other and how all the demigods stick up for each other. It’s like they’d do anything for each other,” explained Casey Staum, 11, of Roseville, Minn, “Some of the things they do are so crazy and cool.”
“I’m really into Greek mythology, so a friend recommended I read Percy Jackson,” Caroline van Vliet, 11, of Eagan, Minn., said. Van Vliet’s father, John, used to work as a publicist at Minnesota Historical Society Press, and now writes for the New York Times; we were able to catch up with one another before the event, both of us marveling that Riordan and our daughters had brought us together for the first time in five years.
After being introduced by Marnie Johnson, co-manager of the Red Balloon, who declared this was “the largest audience the Red Balloon has had in a long time,” Riordan took the stage. Looking like an old-time preacher, and sounding like a middle-school teacher, Riordan roamed the transcept area in front of the rows of pews, speaking into a hand-held microphone with the same kind of humor and energy with which he writes. He soon had the crowd eating out of his hand, even leading them in shouting out in unison the titles—in order—of all the Percy Jackson books.
In all, he spoke for about 20 minutes, explaining that he first conceived of Percy Jackson and the Young Olympians after running out of Greek myths to tell his young son, so he started making up the adventures of a modern-day demigod. “What if the gods were still around today? What if you found out your mother or your father was a Greek god?” he asked the crowd.
“Four years later, and we’re finally to the end of the series,” Riordan noted, “Percy Jackson is about to turn 16, and he has to make a decision that might mean the end of the world. Happy birthday.”
Riordan also gave the crowd some inside information that made them shriek with joy: the movie version of the Lightning Thief is being filmed in Vancouver and is scheduled for release next February. Riordan visited the set last week during a stop there on his tour. It was for him, he said, “like walking straight into the book.”
And, besides the second Young Olympians series he’d discussed with Rachel earlier, which he mentioned briefly during his presentation (so as to not give anything away to those who had not finished reading the new book), Riordan is writing a YA novel inspired by Egyptian myths.
“Get ready,” he suggested, to deafening cheers. “Next spring, the Egyptian gods and goddesses are invading the modern world!”
As the cheering subsided, Riordan asked for questions from the audience. He declined, however, to answer the first question, about what would happen to Percy Jackson and his friends after The Last Olympian ends, explaining he did not want to spoil it for anyone still reading it. He said only, “When you finish The Last Olympian, you’ll have a good idea of where it’s going [in the second series].”
“Who are your favorite characters?” a child asked.
“Tyson the Cyclops—because he’s so funny,” Riordan responded. “And Grover.”
“When will we get to see the movie trailer?” another child asked. Riordan answered that the Lightning Thief trailer is scheduled to accompany the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie—which is set for release on July 15.
“Are any of your characters based on real people?” someone else asked.
“Mrs. Dodds,” Riordan answered, somewhat ruefully. “Yeah. She’s real.” He went on to explain that the character of Mrs. Dodds was not just based on a real teacher at his son’s school, it was based on a teacher actually named Mrs. Dodds. He’d used her real name when he wrote the story for his son that became The Lightning Thief, and had forgotten to change it when he submitted the manuscript for publication.
“I had to explain and apologize,” he admitted, as the crowd roared with laughter. “But she likes it, because all of her students are afraid of her now.”
Although a few children still held their hands high, hoping to ask Riordan a question, he ended the program at 7:30, “because it’s a school night,” he explained; a lot of books had to be signed. He spent the next two hours signing books. The Red Balloon sold 695 books that evening, with 330 of the books sold being The Last Olympian.
As I sped home to Duluth that night, trying to stay under 80 mph while listening to TheLightning Thief, Rachel slept in the seat next to me. It had seemed like such a quixotic quest earlier that day, my humoring my daughter by going with her on a literary road trip to meet Riordan. But, in the end, it was a journey of discovery for me too: I’d found yet another author who wrote books that could excite, intrigue, and enthrall a 47-year-old woman about as much as they did my 11-year-old daughter. And that’s a feat of Olympic proportions.
PW’s Midwest correspondent takes her daughter on a road trip to meet Percy Jackson creator Rick Riordan.