Fantasy stories for middle graders have always had a devoted following—the genre is home to numerous beloved classics, award winners, and bestselling franchises. And of course, myths are literally tales as old as time, with the classical variety—Greek and Roman—routinely being taught in many school curricula. But in 2005, when author Rick Riordan blended these two forms with his own brand of snarky humor and action in The Lightning Thief, the inaugural title of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the result was something notably innovative.
The Lightning Thief introduced 12-year-old Percy, who finds out he’s a demigod living in contemporary times when the Greek gods still rule. As the book gained fans and racked up sales, it spawned a media brand and sparked a seemingly voracious appetite for fiction rooted in mythology—of all kinds. To help meet some of that demand, Riordan and Disney Hyperion launched the Rick Riordan Presents imprint in 2018, headed by Riordan’s editor Stephanie Owens Lurie with input from Riordan. The imprint is devoted to publishing “great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage,” according to Riordan’s website.
These developments, in concert with the publishing industry’s ongoing efforts to publish more diverse authors and stories, have resulted in a rich new wave of mythology-based fantasy adventures for middle grade readers. We asked editors of some of the new and forthcoming books in this robust subgenre to share their views about its growth.
The Riordan factor
The editors we spoke with are quick to point out the very long and treasured history of mythology-based fantasy novels that existed well before Percy Jackson ever made the scene, several of them citing C.S. Lewis as among the authors who mastered the approach. “The appeal of this type of fantasy is evergreen—from Wonderland to Narnia, there’s a timeless allure to the idea of discovering a magical world that exists within or alongside our own,” says Kristin Rens, executive editor at Balzer + Bray (and editor of Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston).
But editors are just as enthusiastic when crediting Riordan with influencing the exposure and status that the subgenre sees today. As Brian Geffen, senior editor at Henry Holt (and editor of the Pilar Ramirez duology by Julian Randall) notes, “Undoubtedly Rick Riordan Presents has been at the forefront of a recent surge in middle grade fantasy series drawing on identities, mythologies, and cultures historically underrepresented in kid lit, as opposed to European mythology.”
Sophia Jimenez, associate editor at Atheneum (and editor of The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía by Alexandra Alessandri), explains how she sees Riordan’s role in expanding the space for fantasies rooted in mythology. “Riordan’s popularity started a really wonderful movement of writers and publishers asking, ‘What other mythologies can we build an adventure story around?’ and actually seeing stories about, say, Latin American mythology as having the potential to engage a wide audience,” she says. “Fantasy stories drawing from mythology have become far more diverse
in their inspirations, and Riordan’s books were
absolutely a factor that led to that.”
Riordan’s stamp has been clearly established, observes Meghan McCullough, an editor at HarperCollins’s Inkyard Press imprint (and editor of Ring of Solomon by Aden Polydoros). “As an editor, the phrase ‘for fans of Rick Riordan’ has become shorthand for ‘this is a middle grade science fiction–fantasy rich with cultural or religious folklore and mythology,’ ” she says. “It’s certainly its own middle grade flavor.”
“Fantasy adventures are just fun!” Jimenez says, reflecting on what readers like about this kind of book. “I think kids have always been fascinated by stories that ask, ‘What if the myths were real? What crazy adventures would a kid like me get into?’ And the ‘like me’ part is key to why we still need more of these stories. The most successful books in this genre have characters who are at least a little relatable to everyone—but at the same time, as a kid you want to feel like your own culture is as exciting and magical as, say, the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. With every new set of myths covered in books like these, another group of fantasy-loving kids feels seen, and feels like their heritage is the stuff of adventures too.”
Lurie believes that in many ways middle grade readers are the perfect audience for a mythology-fantasy blend. “Middle graders are still trying to determine who they are and how they fit into the world, and many haven’t yet become too cynical to delight in wonder and magic,” she says. “Through these books, they can step into a hero’s shoes for a little while and experience a life-changing journey involving all sorts of amazing creatures, fearsome foes, and fanciful settings. The most relatable heroes are flawed ones who are challenged over the course of the story, and in these fantasies, they always come out on top. Stir in a fast pace, high stakes, surprising twists and turns, lots of laughs, a distinctive narrative voice, and an imaginative sparkle, and you’ve got an irresistible piece of entertainment.”
Similarly, Liesa Abrams, v-p and editor-in-chief of the new Labyrinth Road imprint at Random House Children’s Books (and editor of Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind by Misa Sugiura), lists escapism and relatability among the appealing elements of this genre. “I like to say that I believe in publishing books that can help kids escape where they are while feeling seen for who they are,” she says. “That’s part of the fundamental meaning behind the Labyrinth Road imprint name, in fact.” So it makes perfect sense “that the wonderful escapist reading experience of a fantasy story blended with the universal emotions captured by mythological characters would appeal to kids. Watching gods display their fallibility and human vulnerabilities on a supersized scale while kids save the day is the ultimate coming-of-age metaphor for kid readers who are just starting to recognize that adults don’t always have all the answers.”
McCullough sees adventures in the Riordan vein as getting at “something vital in kid lit: kids saving the day, stepping into their power, and living out loud, no adult assistance necessary. By nature of the enormity of what these stories tackle—gods made manifest, worlds traversed—they naturally slough off the ‘adults are still in charge’ of it all, which can sometimes be hard to do in stories written for a middle grade audience.” She believes that these often culturally rich tales can “provide the most excellent kind of mirror for young readers—a joyous one that shows underrepresented readers images of themselves having epic adventures, saving the day instead of needing to be saved, and having fun.”
Seals of approval
Fantasy adventure tales inspired by mythology aren’t just favorites among young readers; they also score high on the likeability chart with teachers and librarians. Lurie, like most of the editors we spoke with, believes that these books do double duty. While the humor and high-stakes action keep kids glued to the page, she notes, they also “subtly teach timeless and universal life lessons about such things as how to conduct oneself, how to respect and look out for others, why family is important, and what it means to be an ambassador for one’s culture. In addition, teachers can use the books as an engaging way to introduce the original source material and examine how the author adapted it.”
The “spoonful of sugar” quality is also something McCullough knows that gatekeepers appreciate. “These kinds of stories are like blending up extra vegetables in your favorite spaghetti sauce so you don’t taste them,” she says. “They’re educational without being kid repellent. It’s no surprise they’re a total dream for teachers, librarians, and booksellers.”
Geffen agrees. “These books manage to pull in readers with the ‘candy’—exciting action, spellbinding magic, and kick-butt heroes—while also offering deeper substance,” he says. “Whether it’s the history of the Trujillo dictatorship like we see in Julian Randall’s series, or the inspection of identity, culture, and so much more with curriculum tie-ins and educational value. Kids end up exploring these deep themes and meaningful coming-of-age moments, all by luring them in with the more commercial, high-concept set pieces.”
The editors we spoke with feel strongly that this newer flavor of mythology-inspired fantasies will have a long lifespan. “I think this genre has immense staying power,” says Elizabeth Lee, editor at Penguin Workshop (and editor of Lei and the Fire Goddess by Malia Maunakea). “These types of fantasies are simultaneously original and evergreen—they hold up in any decade, yet always have something new to offer readers. At the same time, I absolutely think there’s room for growth. There are so many perspectives we have yet to hear from, and so many, like Malia’s, where the story is ‘one of the first.’ ”
Geffen aims to continue publishing stories from traditionally underrepresented mythologies and cultures. “I don’t look at this recent trend as a fad or a blip,” he says. “Rather, I think it’s the start of a lasting sea change in middle grade fantasy as a whole, and the future is incredibly bright. We still have a ways to go though, and I hope we continue to see the proliferation of these stories in all subgenres of fantasy.”
Proliferation will not mean merely more of the same, though, in the view of Alexandra Hightower, senior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (and editor of Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom by Nina Varela). “We’re already seeing this type of story shape-shift and grow,” she says. “There’s something undeniably enthralling about a book that can go beyond the boundaries of our world, so I anticipate that these works will continue to appeal as they change. With each passing year, these books offer more complexity around what it means to be a leader, reminding us that leadership doesn’t always have to fit one particular mold. From these books, kids can consider what it looks like to try, to succeed, to fail, and to pick yourself up again in a space that is full of fun and ultimately safe.”
Lurie believes there is no shortage of mythology-infused adventure stories to tell. “I don’t see us running out of material, because there is an endless supply and variety of inspiration for this kind of book, and there are amazing writers out there,” she says. “The key is to avoid watered-down, formulaic stories, which unfortunately can become more prevalent when many publishers jump on the same bandwagon. We have recently expanded into the YA category with Daniel José Older’s Outlaw Saints duology, and we have some powerful fiction coming from new voices in 2024. In this way, our list will grow along with our readers.” She also cites her company’s move to turn a spotlight on Black storytellers via the forthcoming Freedom Fire imprint as another exciting development.
Lurie points to a few concerns about what lies ahead. “I do worry about negative external forces such as book banners trying to erase nonwhite culture, restrictive state guidelines making it impossible for teachers and librarians to buy new books, and large retailers not supporting middle grade fiction as a category,” she notes. “But rather than let myself get discouraged or disillusioned in the face of these obstacles, I must continue to swing my sword against the monsters. The kids deserve nothing less.”
Read more from our Middle Grade feature:
Myth and Middle Grade: Exploring the Books
In these title close-ups, authors and editors share their thoughts on creating books within the burgeoning middle grade subgenre of mythology-inspired fantasy-adventures.