Retro Review: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan – Review by Jennifer LaGarde

It’s difficult to call a Rick Riordan book underappreciated and keep a straight face, but compared to Percy Jackson and his pals, Carter and Sadie Kane, the heroes of Riordan’s The Red Pyramid are practically unknown.  Even so, Red Pyramid is my favorite Riordan blockbuster – though not for the reasons you might think.  True, it’s got all the earmarks of a Riordan YA juggernaut: plenty of action, a new monster around every corner, a couple of budding romances and lots of embedded mythology (in this case Egyptian) to inspire and delight.  However, what I love most about this book (and indeed the Kane Chronicles series as a whole) is how, in the middle of all their heroics, Carter and Sadie, quietly, and with very little fuss, break down racial barriers in what might be the most homogenous of all literary genres.

Indeed, minority characters, (never mind heroes), are rare in fantasy fiction, making Sadie and Carter Kane, our biracial heroes, unusual to say the least.  The Kane siblings are the children of a white mother and an African American father – both Egyptologists with a direct lineage to the pharaohs.  That said, while Sadie has very light skin and looks white, like her mother, Carter has dark skin and looks more like his father.  And while their racial identities don’t drive the story or become a thematic element, there are moments when Carter and Sadie react to their differences in authentic and understated ways:  Carter considers denying that Sadie is his sister when her behavior is too embarrassing, while Sadie wonders how life has been different for her darker skinned brother.

And while there is one scene in which Carter’s father warns him that as an African American man people will judge him more harshly and therefore he must “always look impeccable,” for the most part, Carter and Sadie are informed by their race, but not defined by it.  And this is where I think Riordan accomplishes something masterful: instead of using the pulpit of his pen to preach about judging people by their actions rather than their skin color, he weaves a tale in which his characters are too smart, funny and well developed to be pigeonholed by their race.  To the reader, Carter and Sadie are not black or biracial heroes.  They are just heroes.

Finally, as a teacher librarian, I am keenly aware of how important it is for students of all backgrounds and ethnicities to see themselves in the pages of a book.  At its core, reading is an exercise in empathy and empowerment.  Just as a book can help the reader gain a greater understanding of what it’s like to “walk a mile in another person’s moccasins,” so too can relating to a character help the reader feel validated and, ultimately, less alone.  Unfortunately, for so many of our African American students, the books in which they most often “see themselves” are strikingly similar – lots of urban fiction filled with troubled teens from dangerous, often impoverished backgrounds, succeeding despite the mountain of obstacles in their way.   And while I count many of these titles as favorites, (see Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes or just about anything in The Bluford Series), it’s nice to be able to add to that list a book like The Red Pyramid:  A fantasy fiction adventure that all students will enjoy but in which African American/biracial students, in particular, get to see themselves as strong, well adjusted, magic wielding heroes.

Jennifer LaGarde (aka library girl!) is the lead librarian for New Hanover Schools and an Educator on Loan for the NC Department of Public Instruction. Jennifer earned her undergraduate degree in English Education from the Watson School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) and her graduate degree in Library Science from Appalachian State University. She is also a Nationally Board Certified School Librarian. Jennifer is the Social Media Special Committee Chair for the North Carolina School Library Media Association, was a founding member of NCSLMA’s Young Adult Book Award and shares NCSLMA webmaster duties with another North Carolina librarian. In 2011, Jennifer was awarded the “I Love My Librarian Award” by the American Library Association, The Carnegie Corporation of New York and The New York Times. She was also named a 2011 “Mover and Shaker” by Library Journal. Jennifer is the author of the award winning blog The Adventures of Library Girl where she proves you don’t have to be super hero to teach Middle School, but having a cape sure helps.”