At a first glance, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson look very similar.
They both feature a young (pre-)teenage boy as the protagonist, who discovers he has powers, goes to a special place to train, and then has to team up with a group of friends to fight monsters, rescue friends, and take down an evil enemy. Both even share many of the same creatures and monsters: A three-headed dog, ghosts, dragons… Both series have legions of fans — and, indeed, those groups of fans often overlap.
Recently, though, Rick Riordan’s famous Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (and its sequels and spinoffs) have been held up as examples of including diversity and representation, especially in the wake of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic Tweets and comments. People who were once die-hard fans of Harry Potter are now rallying around the mythology-based Riordanverse as an alternative.
After all, in contrast to the conspicuous lack of representation in Harry Potter, Riordan’s books boast a diverse cast of characters (including Nico di Angelo, Piper McLean, Alex Fierro, Carter Kane, Samirah al-Abbas… the list goes on). Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor even won a Stonewall award for “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience” due to its inclusion of Alex Fierro, a genderfluid character.
In contrast, Harry Potter features very few characters that are not white, cishet, and neurotypical — at least in a positive light. Of course, Rowling has famously stated that Albus Dumbledore is gay — although she never bothered to put that fact into the text of her books.
Obviously, Riordan (affectionally nicknamed “Uncle Rick” by his fans) makes an effort into including a diverse range of characters in every way. Best of all, these inclusions feel natural — Riordan’s characters don’t give the feeling of having been shoehorned in as “token” diversity; all of his characters have depth and personality, and give off a sense of genuineness that Rowling’s insistence that Dumbledore is gay just can’t compare to. Whether that’s Samirah al-Abbas’s religion, Nico di Angelo’s sexuality, or Carter Kane’s race, the characters are fleshed out, and their unique aspects discussed — but never reduced to just that one aspect of the character.
By contrast, aside from the small cast of main characters, characters in Harry Potter are often completely one-dimensional with no real depth — such as Cho Chang, or Crabbe and Goyle. They have their one defining characteristic and… that’s it. The character has no depth, no complexities. Cho Chang dated Cedric and then Harry. Whee. That’s supposed to be character development?
So why is it that Riordan’s inclusion and characters are so well-received? What is it about the Percy Jackson universe that makes it feel so genuine, as opposed to the sour aftertaste left, for instance, by Rowling’s after-the-fact statements about Dumbledore?
To answer that, we’ll need to take a look back at the very beginning of the Percy Jackson adventure and peek at how it all began.
When Rick Riordan’s son Haley Riordan was nine years old, he was struggling in school. Haley has ADHD and dyslexia, and hated to read. However, he did love Greek myths, and so Rick — who was then a teacher — would tell him stories of Greek myths as a bedtime story. When he ran out of myths, Rick decided to create his own — thus creating Percy Jackson, a modern-day myth.
Percy Jackson was modeled on Haley Riordan, and shares some of the same traits — most notably, ADHD and dyslexia. In Percy Jackson’s world, these weren’t something to be ashamed of. They were the marks of being a demigod — a literal hero.
Percy Jackson showed kids that there wasn’t anything wrong with them for being dyslexic, or having ADHD. They were simply different — and that wasn’t a bad thing. Percy Jackson was created to increase representation. The series was born out of a need for representation of ADHD and dyslexic kids. And it was a success. After that, it was a natural growth of the universe to become more diverse as it grew — because diversity was the foundation on which the series was born.
Riordan also doesn’t shy away from addressing complicated issues in his books. Percy Jackson didn’t just showcase ADHD and dyslexic kids. It also addressed problems such as domestic abuse straight on in the very first book, The Lightning Thief. When Gabe Ugliano is shown to be abusive, both to Percy and his mother, he doesn’t get a redemption arc. He doesn’t reform or show remorse: he gets turned to stone by Medusa’s head.
In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he addresses subjects such as domestic abuse, single parents, kids without parents, prejudice, homelessness (to an extent), death and grief, corruption — in a middle-school series. In The Heroes of Olympus, he gets more into racism against Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics, xenophobia against Chinese people, PTSD, guilt, domestic abuse, and homophobia. The Kane Chronicles deals with prejudice and racism against mixed-race families. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard tackles transphobia, homophobia, homelessness, and Islamophobia, while The Trials of Apollo deals with gaslighting and abuse, stigmatization, trauma, failed relationships, and death.
All weighty subjects for books aimed at middle-schoolers.
And the magic of Riordan’s works is that he works all of these things into a kids book, and that it’s not forced. It all develops naturally, and almost always plays into the established rules and mythology of the books’ world. (For instance, Alex Fierro being the daughter of Loki, or of Emmie and Josephine leaving the Hunters of Artemis.) He introduces kids to concepts that may be new to them almost without even letting it on that that’s what he’s doing. Nico’s forced outing by Cupid works perfectly into the plot. Magnus being homeless sets the stage for everything that comes after.
Rick Riordan doesn’t bother with declaring his characters diverse after the fact — he makes them diverse in the first place, and he makes them genuine. That is why his diverse cast of characters is so well received. He doesn’t bother with a token black character, or a token gay character. He creates a diverse, genuine cast of characters from the beginning, and gives them their own personality, and quirks, and flaws. They make mistakes. They live, and love, and sometimes die, just like any other character. And that’s all that anybody wants.
Riordan states in his Stonewall Award acceptance speech:
“I am trying to do more. Percy Jackson started as a way to empower kids, in particular my son, who had learning differences. As my platform grew, I felt obliged to use it to empower all kids who are struggling through middle school for whatever reason. I don’t always do enough. I don’t always get it right. Good intentions are wonderful things, but at the end of a manuscript, the text has to stand on its own. What I meant ceases to matter. Kids just see what I wrote. But I have to keep trying. My kids are counting on me.”
Rick Riordan also uses his platform to run “Rick Riordan Presents”, a publishing imprint that focuses on publishing diverse stories for kids who loved Percy Jackson. (More info about Rick Riordan Presents can be found at https://rickriordan.com/rick-riordan-presents/.)
In contrast, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter not only lacks diversity, it contains harmful stereotypes and self-contradicts its own messages. On the surface, Harry Potter would seem to disavow the notion that who you’re descended from matters — that’s the type of prejudice that Hermione suffers from as a Muggle-born and that Voldemort tries to enforce. But, in the end, it turns out that Harry is, surprise, descended from Ignotus Peverell — and this helps him defeat Voldemort, thus undermining its own message that your ancestors shouldn’t matter. Hermione and Dobby are ridiculed for wanting to free house-elves, and they’re depicting as not even wanting freedom. The goblins are depicted as money-loving, short creatures with exaggerated facial features— all anti-Jewish stereotypes. Harry Potter is so riddled with harmful stereotypes and ignorance (such as Cho Chang’s name, and many other instances) that it’s not worth listing all of them.
Rowling then, after the series was complete, made statements about the characters, claiming things about them that were not included in the books or directly contradicted by them (such as Dumbledore being gay, or Hermione being Black).
Instead of directly including diverse characters in her books, Rowling makes statements about them, after having completed the books, in Tweets and interviews. Instead of using her platform to amplify minority voices, she talks over them and then claims to “know and love” them. (If you truly know and love a community, Rowling, you would listen when they tell you that you’re harming them.)
This is about as far apart from the Percy Jackson style as you can get.
Riordan isn’t perfect. His depictions have issues. But at least he’s trying, and not using his platform to harm others, which is more than I can say about Rowling.