After the end of June, the joyous month of Pride, throughout which we have had to deal with the resurgence of transphobic tweets from a once much-loved children’s author, it is more important than ever to remember the examples of good representation that exist in children’s literature. I personally have been restoring my faith in humanity by reacquainting myself with the works of Rick Riordan. As a child, I grew up loving the Percy Jackson series, which recounts the exciting adventures of modern-day reincarnations of the Greek Gods and their children. While the seven main characters of Riordan’s follow up series all end up in heterosexual romantic relationships, Riordan has always been unique in his unconventional flouting of gender roles, particularly within the genre of children’s literature which often serves to reinforce these traditional roles. In his later books, Riordan has been making a conscious effort to increase representation in his universe, with what I argue is an overall resounding success.
Riordan’s first openly LGBT+ character is Nico di Angelo, introduced in the third book of the Percy Jackson series. Arguably, Nico as a character has pros and cons in terms of representation. As a son of Hades, the god of death, Nico is somewhat of an outsider from the first moment he is introduced. It is revealed that Nico was originally born in the early 1930s and frozen in time, meaning he is unfamiliar with many aspects of the modern world (it makes slightly more sense if you read the books, I promise). In a shocking twist in The House of Hades, Nico and Jason (one of the protagonists) get into a tussle with the God Cupid, who essentially outs Nico by forcing him to confess his feelings for Percy, who is in a steady relationship with a girl. Despite being glad to see the representation, the cruel depiction of being forcibly outed was painful for many fans, some of whom felt Riordan had handled the subject insensitively. However, Jason’s response is everything one could hope for, and his acceptance is an important moment for Nico.
It is not until the final book that we get writing from Nico’s perspective and are allowed to understand his own fears surrounding his sexual identity, explained largely by his having spent most of his childhood in a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. The final chapters suggest a future of resolution and healing for Nico, who confesses his previous crush to Percy and becomes friends with Will Solace, a character with whom we are later told he develops a romantic relationship. Riordan’s depiction of a lonely queer teen who fears he will never be accepted is poignant, and Nico with his unruffled, standoffish demeanour is far from a stereotype of a young gay man. However, I felt Riordan’s depiction left something to be desired, as Nico’s sexual identity puts him through a great deal of self-imposed anguish, and we spend very little of the books seeing him happy and comfortable in his own identity.
However, in his Magnus Chase books, Riordan pulls out all the stops, with the introduction of Alex Fierro demonstrating real evolution in terms of his LGBT+ representation. Alex is genderfluid – a gender identity rarely represented in fiction at all, let alone in children’s fiction. Rather than half-apologetically hiding this character away in the background of his world, Riordan brings Alex into the centre of his plot by making her the love interest of the title hero, Magnus. This is just one example of the way this series runs playful circles around unhealthy stereotypes and actively aims to diversify its Old Norse source material (another notable way Riordan does this is by introducing a Muslim character, Samirah Al-Abbas, as one of the Valkyries). Our title character Magnus is initially confused by Alex’s clothes, which don’t seem to conform to a specific gender expectation. Alex explains she personally prefers using the pronoun that matches her current gender to the gender-neutral ‘they’. The novel subsequently switches pronouns when discussing Alex, generally using she, as Alex explains this is her default pronoun unless she specifies otherwise.
Importantly, Riordan makes a point of not generalising or speaking on behalf of all gender fluid people; as Alex succinctly tells Magnus, ‘I’m not a teacher or a poster child […] I’m just me’. This was an incredibly powerful sentiment to see in a children’s book and a major advancement for queer representation in literature, as reflected by the book winning the Stonewall Book Award for children’s literature in 2017.
Drawing of Alex Fierro by Aimee Dickinson
Riordan made a real effort to narrate Alex’s gender fluidity as authentically as possible, explaining to fans that he utilised his experience teaching transgender students, and the book Beyond Magenta containing interviews with transgender teens, in his writing.
To me, what makes these books so special is how brilliantly they handle what is termed ‘casual representation’ (works with LGBT+ representation where a character’s arc is not built solely around their sexuality or gender identity alone). Alex’s gender identity is just one part of her complex character, and it plays no part in Magnus’ attraction to or respect for her. Alex, whether being called he or she, is funny, sarcastic, and a dangerous warrior, and Magnus quickly learns to see her gender fluidity as just another thing that makes up her personality.
This series exists as proud proof that there is no excuse for not providing good, well researched, and accessible LGBT+ representation in children’s books. I am hopeful that more authors will follow in Riordan’s footsteps in the future; but until they do, I will be re-reading his books again and again.
Image by Dave and Margie Hill via Flickr