If there was a recipe for the best-selling writer Rick Riordan, it would go something like this — start with a love of storytelling, fold in more than a decade of teaching middle school English, combine that with two sons of his own who don't quite share their dad's love of literature, and marinate all of that with a deep passion for mythology.
Riordan has sold tens of millions of kids' books. He hit pay dirt with the Percy Jackson series — it's about an everyday kid who has superhero powers because he's the secret son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
Egyptian gods reign supreme in our latest book for NPR's Backseat Book Club. It's The Red Pyramid from Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles. It tells the story of a brother and sister — Carter and Sadie Kane — who have lived apart most of their lives. One Christmas Eve, their father brings them both together for a trip to the British Museum, and a terrible, magical accident happens that unleashes the gods of ancient Egypt into the modern world.
Carter and Sadie learn that they are descended from ancient Egyptian magicians. This means they are the only ones who have the magic that might be able to put the gods back where they belong — before the world spirals out of control.
Riordan is an author who knows his audience — and that has influenced his writing. "I imagine myself in front of my own class," he tells NPR's Michele Norris. "I don't teach anymore, but I can still clearly see fifth period after lunch — that's a real tough time to teach. And I tried to imagine writing a story that would appeal to those kids — even when they're tired, even when they're bouncing off the walls. ... If I could find a way to tell a story that would resonate with them, then I had something going."
Carter and Sadie are biracial characters, but Riordan doesn't dwell on this in the book. He is more interested in the idea of kids being caught between two worlds, a concept to which he says his readers can relate.
"I think anytime you're writing to the middle grades, you're writing to young readers who are trapped in a number of ways between two worlds: between childhood and adulthood, between their friends and their parents," Riordan says. "Often they're trapped, trying to identify where they fit in their culture."
In The Red Pyramid, Egypt also becomes a metaphor for this type of crossroads, Riordan explains: "It's part of the European tradition and culture, but it's also very much a part of the African tradition and culture. And it sort of belongs in both worlds."
Riordan says he always aims to "find the universal" in his books.
"Even if these stories are 3,000 years old, there's still so much about the characters, about the dilemmas, about their understanding of the universe that still resonates. The whole idea of order and chaos, which is really central to the ancient Egyptian understanding of the world, is still very much with us. You know, how much order is good? And when does order become too restrictive? Is a little bit of chaos OK, or is chaos always an evil force? I mean, these are questions that any kid who's ever been in a school cafeteria can relate to."
Riordan's kids' books began with bedtime stories for his two sons. They didn't inherit his obsession with books, but the kids did share their dad's love for the ancient world. So he spun tales about mythological gods whose worlds collided with ordinary kids — kids who had to stare down their fears to do heroic things. Riordan wants that message to his sons to be embraced by kids everywhere.
By the way, Riordan isn't done yet. Next up: Norse gods.