This past summer I had the great good fortune to sit in a room full of children and discuss Rick Riordan's “The Lightning Thief.” For those of you who haven't read it, “The Lightning Thief” tells the story of a boy who discovers that the dyslexia and ADHD that have made his life miserable are, in point of fact, proof of his parentage: a perfectly normal mother, and a father who is none other than Poseidon, the trident-wielding god of the sea himself. Which means the boy can perform feats of immense power far beyond the abilities of any of his merely mortal friends. Can you imagine a more perfect ugly-duckling-turned-swan transformation? Riordan has now written an entire series based on this premise, and the kids love it. They pore over tales featuring centaurs, satyrs, and naiads as avidly as you and I once pored over stories of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
And they have a lot of fun with it. At one point in our discussion, I set a box of crayons and some paper on the table and asked the children to draw a picture of their favorite Greek god. In an instant the spare room we were meeting in had turned into a studio full of art students. All around me young Michelangelos intensely drafted and re-drafted their sketches. But I was worried about one boy who chose to do his picture entirely in yellow crayon. The paper I'd handed out already had a yellowish cast to it, and, as a result, it was almost impossible to make out anything he was drawing. But, still, tongue stuck out in concentration, he soldiered on, executing one all but invisible line after another.
Finally the time came for the children to display their pictures and explain why the figure they'd sketched, along with its accompanying symbols of divinity, clearly represented the god they'd set out to depict. One by one a succession of princess and warrior figures were held up and the design decisions their creators had made in drafting them explained. Then the time came for the little boy to speak. I held my breath. When the children realized they could not see anything on his paper, would they laugh at him? Would he cry? Bravely the little boy held up his page and its barely discernible scatter of yellow lines. “This is Hades,” he said, “god of the Underworld. He's invisible!” It brought down the house.
Later, the oldest boy in the group, a precocious 13 year-old, explained a scene in which the novel's young hero interacts bashfully with a daughter of Athena by saying, “Sometimes I don't think girls realize how uncomfortable they can make us.” He said this in a room full of girls. And none of them giggled.
From time to time I hear people complain that today's youth are good for nothing but playing computer games with their thumbs. I wish I could show them what the children at the Talbot County Free Library show me every day. We have every reason to be hopeful, every reason to be optimistic. This is a generation full of bright, caring, good young people. Someday, they may very well save the world.