Tag Archives: Percy Jackson

Guest Post: Raising Readers

Like a lot of modern moms, I began reading to Son No. 1 in utero. I wanted to give him every possible advantage on his life’s journey—a head start of sorts—so I read little board books aloud to him as he floated in his temporary home of embryonic goo and poked his elbows into my ribs. I imagined his brain absorbing those words and ideas, his heart calmed by the steady measure of my voice.

When Son No. 1 was eighteen months old, he would refuse to lie down for a nap until I’d read one of his little books. By that time, I was awaiting the arrival of Son No. 2 and was absolutely exhausted more often than not. Sometimes I’d turn two pages instead of one or pretend the story was finished when it wasn’t, and he’d usually catch me and complain vociferously. All that mattered was the book.

While his second-place status meant he rarely had my full attention, Son No. 2 did get to hear me read to Son No. 1 every single day from his crib or from his bouncy seat perched on the kitchen table or from his blanket on the living room floor next to the dog. And he tagged along on wobbly legs as we visited the library week after week, listening to stories read aloud by the librarians and then picking out our own jewels to take home.

Does having that all-important head start make kids joyful, enthusiastic readers, lovers of books great and small? You bet it does, as least in our case! Son No. 1 still loves to read. He loves to read so much, in fact, that he’ll continue to read when he should be getting ready for school or making his way to the dinner table or going to bed. I sometimes have to surreptitiously insert a bookmark and close a book with his nose still in it to make him stop reading.

I’m at home wherever there are books, and I’m the type of mom who thinks hanging out at the library on a Saturday afternoon is fun. And while my boys may hem and haw at the idea of having to set foot inside an actual library during summer vacation, they immediately zoom off in different directions as soon as the door opens before them, Son No. 1 to find the latest Percy Jackson or Heroes of Olympus installment, Son No. 2 to the comics section, searching in vain for a Calvin and Hobbes collection he hasn’t yet devoured.

So what do you do if your son or daughter isn’t a born reader? Every kid has an interest, and every interest, no matter how obscure, has had a book or magazine devoted to it. Is your son begging for a hermit crab, guinea pig, or gerbil? Say OK but only if he first reads up on how to care for said pet. Does your daughter want to learn to water-ski in Sarasota Bay? There’s a magazine for that called—you guessed it—Water Ski.

A Land Remembered Student EditionAnd—oh, yeah—read with and to your kids, no matter how old they are. Last year, Son No. 2’s teacher read the student version of Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered aloud to the class. Every student loved it. Even those kids who weren’t avid readers enjoyed listening to a simply worded, action-packed historical novel read slowly and purposefully by a teacher who understood the power of a well-placed pause. They could identify with Zech MacIvey, a boy their own age, even though Zech’s story takes place 150-plus years before their own. And they could identify with their patient teacher, who obviously loved the book as much as they did.

Kris Rowland is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader whose clients include Pineapple Press.

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Why Middle Grade Fantasy Novels can be Educational

Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus by Christopher Tozier

Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus by Christopher Tozier

Fantasy novels get the rap for being escapist fluff.  We all know that. Warlocks, vampires, elves, and psychic savants hardly seem to be the stuff that PhDs are made of.  That’s why kids and adults love to read fantasy. They don’t like to think, right?

Scholarship on this subject has focused on how the fantasy genre impacts the development of childhood imagination and emotional maturity . Very little has been said about the power of fantasy as a springboard to academic education.

A big motivator to write my first middle reader fantasy was noticing how spectacular children are at learning and understanding complete nonsense. (insert joke here…) Fantasy novels are chock-full of ridiculous words defying pronunciation much less intuitive understanding. Yet within the context of the story, these words make sense to them. In fact, many readers of fantasy revel in the specialist vocabularies:  place names with no vowels, magical objects that can’t be pronounced, and entire fictional languages.

I find middle-grade readers to be the most vocabulary-tolerant of any reader. One reason for this may be that everything is a little harder for them to read. They are faced with new vocabulary on a regular basis so it really doesn’t put them off when they need to look up a word or take special care to sound something out.

Adults on the other-hand, often lose the patience necessary to investigate a word.  Adults want the machinery of the art to disappear behind the story. Instead, their preferred challenge lies with subtext and abstraction. Perhaps this is why we, as adult writers, often underestimate our middle grade readers.  We take too much care to avoid frustrating them with difficult words.  Just like the protagonists in fantasy books, getting challenged and emerging victorious at the end is part of the fun.

These four proper noun words are from hugely successful middle reader fantasies.  You probably can rattle off a bunch more.

  • Muggles
  • Quidditch
  • Anaklusmos
  • Smeagol

If readers can handle “Dumbledore” then why can’t they handle real words?  Why can’t they handle Latin (scientific) names?  Fantasy has a highly specialized and developed vocabulary. Science has a highly specialized and developed vocabulary. I believe the two can combine without turning into SciFi. Two examples that came immediately to my mind were the “holothurians” in the classic Water Babies and “tesseract” in A Wrinkle in Time. Not exactly words used in everyday conversation.  Yet learning those words helps expand the reader’s knowledge and understanding of our world.

In Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, the characters meet a creature called an anaspidean. Although the name sounds like an alien and the whale-sized creature is clearly fantastic, it is actually a real animal (albeit smaller in scale.) The anaspidean is a great way to introduce students to mollusks.  What do you suppose a reader is going to find if they look up the word anaspidean in a dictionary or online?

Fantasy novels also employ plot-driven teaching.  In Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, Olivia is introduced to the Florida scrub and the Floridan aquifer. She interacts with many of the animals that make Florida unique and special. These aren’t lessons that Olivia sits through in a classroom. They are simply the worlds that she participates in. To the casual reader, the aquifer is just the magical location of the secret city of Junonia. It isn’t mechanically any different than entering Narnia through a door in the back of a wardrobe or the characters in a magical book coming to life and causing havoc in our world. But the fact that aquifers are real things does make a difference.  Junonia generates interest in the geology beneath Florida, the Cenozoic Era, and issues of groundwater and springs.

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series introduces students to Greek mythology, even if the idea of a stories being used to teach stories is a bit reflexive. Riordan’s books are not modernizations,  they use characters and situations from classical myths to drive entirely new stories. This is what makes them appealing. They aren’t trying to teach you anything, yet the fun, exciting fantasy introduces the readers to classical literature.

There is a limit to how much educational material can be presented in a novel and still keep it readable. The key of course is to engage the reader first. The book has to be a good read. Fantasy novels are not textbooks but they can be a great supplement to an educational curriculum.

Christopher Tozier was awarded a 2011 Individual Artist Fellowship from the State of Florida. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus is his debut novel, the first in the Olivia Brophie Series.  It is available at your favorite bookstore or online. You can learn more at www.oliviabrophie.blogspot.com  and www.christophertozier.com. Join us for a Twitter chat on March 6th at 3:30p EST to chat about why fantasy can be educational during our #flfantasy chat, use #flfantasy to join in.

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