The Lightning Thief was first published in June of 2005. Since then it’s pretty much become a staple of middle grade fiction and a required part of the conversation if you’re going to chat about literature that incorporates Greek mythology.
The first time I read this book to see what all the fuss was about was years ago, and I remember not “getting” it. I also hadn’t read a lot of middle grade fiction since, well, middle school. (Which was well before 2005.)
Now that I have the chance to come back to it, I have a better appreciation for the straight-up quality of the writing. It’s fun. It keeps readers moving and engaged. If you even think of getting bored, all you have to do is glance at the chapter titles–starting with “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher” and moving on later to “I Become the Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”–to know there’s plenty of laughs and adventure in store.
But there’s something else the book is well-known for in children’s literature, and that’s its representation of ADD/ADHD.
It never occurred to me I might have ADD until I was an adult, because I thought it meant a person who couldn’t focus. Heck, I thought, I focus great. Sometimes I get so focused, I lose track of everything else–someone speaking to me, the fact that lunchtime was two hours ago and I’m starting to feel lightheaded, ect. Which, as it turned out, is actually called hyperfocus, and it’s a much better snapshot of what ADD/ADHD actually is. This is one thing The Lightning Thief really nails. Percy gets super-focused, though unfortunately not on his schoolwork, which is one of his major struggles at the start of the book. More than once, though, he saves himself or his friends with his abilities. Contrast this with a more “typical” ADHD character such as David from the Netflix series Hilda, who has a long-running gag with getting distracted by something at a crucial moment. Percy’s ADHD is a great help sometimes, a frustration at others, and it’s a pretty realistic representation in that sense.
The Lightning Thief is dedicated to Haley, Rick Riordan’s son who, according to an interview in The Guardian, inspired the character of Percy. Percy’s dyslexia comes from the fact that his brain is wired to read ancient Greek, and the hyperfocus that ADHD brings are his battle senses. The book is very much a wish-fulfillment story, and in some ways, this bugged me a bit. Because in reality, having ADD/ADHD or dyslexia doesn’t mean you are secretly a demigod. It means you think differently, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a thing not everyone is going to be aware of or understand, and you’ve still got to find ways to work with that. Percy gets swept away to a camp where everyone understands him and he’s got super powers. (Hence the whole “supreme lord of the bathroom” thing.) It’s almost like ADHD and dyslexia are just the ways mere mortals try to explain the obvious signs of demigodhood. Presumably, in Percy’s world, roughly 10% of the population has ADHD like in our world, and of them, a much smaller percentage were only diagnosed as such because they’re secretly an Olympian’s kid. Tough luck for everyone else, I guess.
But that’s me–an adult–speaking. That’s me who hyperfocused on my schoolwork as a teen and me for whom math always just kind of made sense. My grades were rarely a problem, even if I was a ticking time bomb of stress about them. I struggled to read for long periods, but so did lots of other middle and high schoolers. If a kid reads Percy Jackson and finally sees themselves in a protagonist, even if it is just a wish fulfillment story, that’s a good thing. A really good thing. I don’t want to take away anything from readers who found the first book they actually want to read in a long time. I couldn’t fully throw myself into the wish fulfillment aspect of it, but I’m not a kid. There’s a magic to being in this book’s intended age group, and I think it’s one of the big reasons the book has been as successful as it has.