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In 'Red Pyramid,' Kid Heroes Take On Ancient Egypt

Dec 19, 2012
Originally published on December 19, 2012 5:43 pm

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.


What's Next For The Backseat Book Club? Gary Schmidt's novel Okay for Now. It's 1968 and 8th grader Doug is new to town, and trying to find his place. Read along with us and send us your questions.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club, when we put 9- to 14-year-olds in the driver seat. We asked them to read our monthly selection and then send in their questions for the author. This month's book is "The Red Pyramid" by Rick Riordan. Our colleague Michele Norris leads us on this reading adventure.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: 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 that with a deep passion for mythology.

Rick 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 Backseat readers. It's "The Red Pyramid" from Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles.

He gives us a quick sketch of the plot.

RICK RIORDAN: "The Red Pyramid" is about 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 find out that they are descended from ancient Egyptian magicians and 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.

NORRIS: Now, Rick Riordan is an author who knows his audience.

RIORDAN: I imagine myself in front of my own class. 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, something that would be so engaging, so fitting for their sense of humor, for their sensibility, for how they saw the world, the sort of crazy absurdity of it all, but also the action, the engaging characters, the emotions that they could relate to.

If I could find a way to tell a story that would resonate with them, then I had something going.

NORRIS: Here at the Backseat Book Club, we love to hear from our young readers and for this book, we had a motherlode of emails from India to England to Mableton, Georgia. Here's 9-year-old Elliot Bemis.

ELLIOT BEMIS: I loved reading "The Red Pyramid." I did a themed project in my class and made a time machine to go back to ancient Egypt. Once I was there, I taught my classmates about the gods and goddesses. It was awesome. I have a question for you. How did you choose the numbers 13, 32, 33? Do they have some special meaning? Thank you for writing such an amazing book. Keep writing.

RIORDAN: Wow. What a great project. I'd love to see the time machine. That sounds fantastic. The numbers actually are Carter's favorite players from the L.A. Lakers, so, you know, I'd like to say they have some great magical significance, but really it's all about basketball. And being from San Antonio myself, I, you know, I had to be a little careful about the L.A. Lakers reference, but I decided to risk it.

NORRIS: Carter and Sadie are biracial kids and yet you don't make a lot of that in the book. And in talking to teachers, that's one thing that they in particular really like about this.

RIORDAN: The idea of kids being caught between two worlds is something, I think, that always fascinates me and resonates with my students as well, my readers. 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. Often they're trapped, trying to identify where they fit in their culture.

With Egypt, especially, that becomes a very powerful metaphor because Egypt really is a crossroads of the ancient world. 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. It's really the deepest taproot of what I would say is our modern Western civilization.

So in a way, I was using Carter and Sadie to sort of explore that idea of being between cultures and trying to decide where you fit, who are you, because learning to self-identify is really important to the kids of the age that I'm writing to.

NORRIS: And, you know, I'm hearing metaphors on top of metaphors, next to metaphors, sliding into metaphors because there's also the two worlds that you write about in terms of the ancient and the modern culture.

RIORDAN: Absolutely. I think one thing I'm always trying to do in my books is find the universal. 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. But 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.

NORRIS: We received a letter from Lindsey Lamay(ph) and it's a bit long, but just bear with me because it's worth hearing.

LINDSEY LAMAY: (Reading) I am now 16 and all I can say is thank you. Thank you for all the books that helped make me the person I am today. Don't worry, I turned out OK, or so they tell me. I would not be who I am today if it weren't for the inspiration you put in your books. They inspire me to do my best and when that isn't good enough, to push harder.

(Reading) They motivate me to be loyal to my friends and to stand up for the truth. When someone tells me I can't do something because of some fault I have, your books inspire me to want to do it more, so thanks again for the inspiration and making us, your fans, realize that there is a hero in everyone of us, even an ADHD, dyslexic, annoying seaweed-brained kid. Sincerely, Lindsey.

RIORDAN: Wow, what a letter. You know, when I hear a letter like that, I think to myself, OK, you know, I'm good now. I've done what I set out to do. I don't know that it gets any better. So thank you, Lindsey, that's amazing and I'm really glad that the books have been such a great positive influence on you. That's, you know, really the biggest reward that I can have as a teacher or as a writer.

NORRIS: 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 all kids, including those who are out there listening to their radios right now.

By the way, Rick Riordan isn't done yet. Next up: Norse gods. I'm Michele Norris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.