Middle school is no picnic, especially when peer pressure, galloping hormones and embarrassing adults collide. And what if, on top of all that, you've been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, and your math teacher turns into a monster who wants to kill you? Such is the plight of 12-year-old Percy Jackson, protagonist of The Lightning Thief, the first book in a new series by award-winning mystery writer Rick Riordan. In his first novel for the younger set, Riordan has mixed Greek mythology and the vagaries of modern-day childhood with fun, fantastical results.

Not long after the unfortunate incident in which he vaporizes his math teacher, Percy has an avalanche of shocking realizations, including the truth about his parentage (mom is human, and dad is, um, Poseidon) and a little-known aspect of the Empire State Building (take the elevator to the 600th floor, get out at Olympus). And the reason Percy has trouble reading? His mind is hard-wired to read ancient Greek.

Even as Percy reels at his new demigod reality, he is given an assignment of grave importance: he must travel across the U.S. to retrieve Zeus' master lightning bolt, the recent theft of which threatens to start a civil war among the gods. Grover, a kind satyr and staunch environmentalist, and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, join Percy on his journey to the Underworld (it's in Los Angeles).

Riordan creates rich characters and puts a slyly humorous, contemporary spin on the classic quest storyline. During their journey, Percy and his friends develop a strong bond and realize that being different is something to be celebrated. Their battles are epic, their encounters with angry gods frightening, and an act of betrayal nearly fatal. In the end, though, good prevails and Percy learns the importance of responsible, wise choices. Bring on book two!

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