If you have in your acquaintance a person between the ages of 8 and 14, you've probably seen them reading The Lightning Thief or another book in the Percy Jackson young-adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan.
That series, about an ordinary kid who discovers he's actually half Greek god, ended after five books last year. Riordan hasn't been resting up, though. He's just published the first installment of The Kane Chronicles, a new series inspired by Egyptian mythology.
That first book, The Red Pyramid, introduces brother-sister duo Carter and Sadie Kane — 14 and 12 years old, respectively — who discover that they are related to the Egyptian gods. Riordan tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that he got the idea for The Kane Chronicles from his readers.
"One thing I've learned is you have to listen to kids," says Riordan, whose own sons are his first editors. "As I toured the country for Percy Jackson, so many young readers said, 'Why don't you do something about Egypt?' As a former classroom teacher myself, I knew that it was a very high-interest subject. So after thinking about it for a few years, I thought it would be wonderful if I could bring those old myths that aren't as well known as the Greek myths into the present, with a Percy Jackson-type spin."
Like Percy, Carter and Sadie are dealing with serious real-world and fantasy issues: They're biracial, orphaned and have recently made that surprising discovery about their heritage. Riordan says it's an experience kids can identify with — except maybe for the part about being half-deity.
"I see this all the time," he says. "Kids are struggling with their identity; they're struggling with how they fit in with their peers. They're struggling with how they fit in with their families and what their relationship to their parents is."
Riordan says he believes placing normal kid issues in a fantasy context resonates for young readers. It's a phenomenon that perhaps wasn't truly appreciated until J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter exploded onto the scene — an event that Riordan credits with changing the world of young adult literature.
"Harry Potter opened so many doors for young adult literature," he says. "It really did convince the publishing industry that writing for children was a viable enterprise. And it also convinced a lot of people that kids will read if we give them books that they care about and love."
A more developed young-adult publishing industry means a better selection of young-adult literature — which, Riordan says, is important when it comes to encouraging kids to read.
"Every child is different," he says. "I think it's important that we don't have maybe just one or two books that we're recommending to all children — but rather we cater the books to fit each individual child."
Still, Riordan doesn't worry about the state of kids and books these days.
"I think children love reading, and they will make time for it if we put the right books into their hands," he says. "And I hope I get the chance to keep being one of the people that writes them."