The Frontiers of Mythology

I’ve had some requests for copies of the speech I gave this weekend at the annual conference for the Federation of Children’s Book Groups at Worth Abbey School in England. The theme of the conference was ‘Crossing Frontiers,’ and so I titled my speech ‘The Frontiers of Mythology.’ My speech notes are below. There may be a few things left out, like impromptu comments and my bad jokes, but most of the content is included!

The Frontiers of Mythology

I heard the theme of this conference was “frontiers,” so they decided they’d better get someone from Texas to speak. It’s true when most people in Texas hear the word frontier, they are more likely to think of barbed wire and cows than children’s books and authors, but I do think the idea of frontiers has a lot to do with children’s literature, especially my favorite kind of literature – mythology. So I thought I would explore three questions today: What is a frontier as it applies to children’s literature, what is mythology and why is it relevant today, and why do I aspire to be on the frontiers of mythology?

So first, what’s a frontier? According to the dictionary a frontier is that part of a country which fronts an unsettled region or another country; the marches; the border, confine, or extreme part of a country; the edge of civilization.

That’s something I know about, coming from Texas. Texas has always had a bigger-than-life reputation as the frontier, where civilization overlaps with the wild. This is an image we Texans love to perpetuate.

My mother was actually raised in England, because her father was stationed her in the Air Force after World War II. They lived in Hatch End and she grew up reading the Noddy books. She moved to the States when she was a young teen and I don’t think she ever quite got over the culture shock.

I was born in Texas, but even now, in modern times, Texas has always felt like a frontier to me. We don’t ride horses anymore. We have cars and internet and cable TV, but we still view Western Civilization from the edge, not from the center, and it does skew my perspective, possibly letting me see things as others might not. Sometimes the best way to observe something, after all, is from a distance.

For instance, people often ask me why I set the Percy Jackson series in New York City, when I live in Texas. They ask how I know so much about New York. In fact, I learned everything I knew about New York from not ever living there. I wasn’t so much interested in New York, the real place, as I was in New York, the icon of American culture. When you live on the frontier, everything does seem larger than life. You grow up with an innate fascination for finding the limits and stretching the truth.

Today, the very notion that there are frontiers anymore is often challenged. The definition of “Western Civilization” has changed dramatically over the centuries. What does that mean? Which cultures and countries does it include? Is the term even relevant today, in a global society? But I think frontiers are still important, because they push the boundaries of who we are. They force us to constantly redefine ourselves.

How does this apply to those of us who are interested in children’s literature? Well, U.S. inventor Charles Kettering once said, “Where there is an open mind there will always be a frontier.” And certainly children’s literature is all about opening minds. We must constantly look for better ways to reach children, to find literature that engages them, and makes them want to read. To do that, we have to constantly reexamine what we mean by children’s literature. We must do that with the help of children, by learning what they like, and what boundaries they are pushing. And believe me, as the father of two young boys, I know that children love pushing boundaries. I have had to pull them back from the frontiers of bad behavior on numerous occasions.

Still, I would pose the radical idea that the best judges for children’s literature are . . . children. These books are, after all, written for them. This is why I am so grateful for the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, because the Federation understands and involves children so well. I don’t believe that quality is divorced from accessibility, or that a good book must be a difficult book. I believe that any book that gets children reading is in fact a good book. If this includes anime, graphic novels – so be it. These, I would argue, are literary frontiers, and often our children are the ones blazing the trail, while we adults follow behind in our slow heavy covered wagons. When it comes to children’s literature, the frontiers really do depend on open minds, and the Federation is wonderfully open-minded.

Recently I was asked in an interview to name the ten books I thought every child should read. I took issue with the question. Perhaps we should stop thinking about a universal canon of children’s literature. The ten books my twelve-year-old son should read are not the same as ten books his nine-year-old brother would enjoy, or that a fourteen year-old girl would like. Children are not the same. Perhaps instead of narrowing the field to define the center of children’s literature, we should be more active in pushing the boundaries and widening the edges. Let’s expand, not narrow. One of the reasons, in fact, that I love mythology, is its myriad nature. There is no canon of “correct” stories. Instead, there are countless versions of each myth, leaving the reader free to pick the permutation that most appeals to him or her.

And so moving on to that second question: What exactly is mythology and why is it relevant today? Certainly, you can get through life knowing no mythology. You can get through life not knowing how to read and write, too, but it’s a pretty poor existence. Mythology is the symbolism of civilization. It contains our most deeply embedded archetypes. Once you know mythology, you see it everywhere – from the names of our days of the week to our art and architecture. You would be hard-pressed to find any work of English literature that does not draw to some extent on Classical mythology, whether it be the hero’s quest or simply allusions to the Olympians.

Knowing mythology certainly makes one a more informed member of society, but it’s not simply important to understand and appreciate Western Civilization. Mythology is a way of understanding the human condition. Myths have always been man’s attempt to explain phenomena – and not just why the sun travels across the sky. Myths also explain love, fear, hate, revenge, and the whole range of human feelings.

When I speak to school groups, I often ask children what Greek god they would like for a parent. My favorite answer was from a school girl in Texas who said, “Batman.” Actually, the girl’s comment about Batman being a Greek god is not too far off, because it’s the same idea at work: creating a superhuman version of humanity so that we can explore our problems, strengths and weaknesses writ large. If the novel puts life under the microscope, mythology blows it up to billboard size.

Myths aren’t something that happened in the past, something that we left behind with the Bronze Age. We are still creating myths all the time. My books, among other things, explore the myth of America as the beacon of civilization, the myth of New York, and the myth of the American teenager, which I’ve found resonates very strongly with British school children.

When we understand classical mythology, we understand something of our own nature, and how we attempt to explain things we don’t comprehend. And as long as we’re human, there will be things we don’t comprehend.

So finally, what do I mean when I say I like to explore the frontiers of mythology?

On one level, I mean I’m trying to have fun with the Classical models by modernizing them. The Underworld works very well under Los Angeles, and Ares is just at home in Washington D.C. as he was in Sparta. Whether or not children know anything about the original myths, I try to make their modern equivalents accessible in the Percy Jackson books, and almost invariably I find that kids know a lot more mythology than most adults give them credit for. There is something about myths that is naturally appealing to children.

But by frontiers of mythology, I also mean that I try to push mythology by putting it to new uses. Why did I choose to put the Greek gods in America? On a practical level, that’s the world I know. On a philosophical level: I liked exploring the idea that Western culture shifts over the ages, that its center of power moves, pushing its frontiers outward. As Western Civilization moved to America, it took on a distinctly new flavor, and yet retained its core. As America was Westernized, the West was Americanized. No one can deny this whose seen a Hollywood movie or eaten at McDonald’s. I’m very interested in how the Classical models change, and how they stay the same, when they’re applied to America. My young hero Percy is very American, but at the same time he shares a lot of common ground with Perseus, Heracles, and all the others.

On a more personal level, mythology was very helpful to me. Before I wrote The Lightning Thief, my son Haley was struggling in second grade, or Year 3. It turned out he was dyslexic and ADHD. These learning disabilities, by the way, are also a frontier, a way of seeing from the edge. ADHD and dyslexic people are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. They cannot do things traditionally, so they learn to improvise. Percy Jackson was a myth to help him make sense of who he is. Mythology is a way of explaining something that can’t be explained, except by allegory, and my son’s struggle in school definitely applied. He completely bought in to the idea that ADHD/dyslexia, taken together, was an almost sure sign that you have Olympian blood.

With three Percy Jackson books now written, I’m having more fun than ever exploring and modernizing mythology. I have two more books to write in the series, and I’ve gone beyond the old standards of the Minotaur and Medusa to some lesser known but equally amazing myths that never made it into the most mythology collections. They’re every bit as fascinating as the myths you might have heard, and you can be sure Percy Jackson will be discovering them afresh on his next quest. The frontiers of mythology are as fresh and fertile as they were two thousand years ago, and I’m having a fantastic time introducing them to today’s young readers.

In closing, I’m very grateful to the Federation for the work you do opening minds, and expanding frontiers in children’s literature. Children need advocates who care about reading, who care about youth literacy, and who understand that reading needs to be a fun, positive experience if we want children to grow up to be lifelong readers and lifelong learners. A hero is someone who stands against great odds and does the right thing, and in that light, you all stand very tall in my mythology.

Rick Riordan