'Percy Jackson' author pens powerful letter in defense of casting new Annabeth Chase

Rick Riordan at a book signing in 2007.

When my son got into the "Percy Jackson" books in the sixth grade, I hadn’t really heard of the series but I learned it's much like the "Harry Potter" for Gen Zers. Enormously thick books were devoured in under a week and alarms were set for the next release in the series. Searches were on for the super-secret hidden book that wraps up a few loose ends and a fandom was born. But when the books were made into a live action movie, true fans of the series were left confused and disappointed, so when it was discovered that "Percy Jackson" was getting a reboot, fans rejoiced. Then the cast was announced, which should have been a moment of celebration for the fantastic actors chosen and the effort to bring representation to Greek mythology, but some fans were less than thrilled.

Leah Jeffries, a Black girl, and Aryan Simhadri, an Indian American boy, were cast to play Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood, Percy’s best friends. The trio go on adventures and help each other out of sketchy predicaments that can only be experienced by demigods and satyrs. But… it didn’t take long for naysayers to start piping up over fictional characters being represented by people of color, particularly Annabeth being played by a Black girl, when the character in the series has blond hair. Eventually, the growing discontent caught the attention of none other than Rick Riordan himself and he not only took to Twitter to defend the young star, but wrote a beautiful strong condemnation of these comments in a letter on his website.


Riordan didn’t shy away from calling out racism in the comments, writing, “You either are not aware, or have dismissed, Leah’s years of hard work honing her craft, her talent, her tenacity, her focus, her screen presence. You refuse to believe her selection could have been based on merit,” he wrote. “Without having seen her play the part, you have pre-judged her (pre + judge = prejudice) and decided she must have been hired simply to fill a quota or tick a diversity box.” Riordan was very clear when he called out the problematic behavior from fans of the series.

The author wasn’t finished there. He continued, “You are judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks. She is a Black girl playing someone who was described in the books as white,” before plainly stating, “Friends, that is racism.”

There’s a subtle irony about the backlash surrounding Annabeth being represented by a Black girl, as the book’s version of Annabeth is related to Greek goddess Athena, who many believe to have been taken from African culture. In fact, Neith, the Egyptian goddess, is said to be Athena’s prototype. Neith was the goddess of creation, wisdom, weaving and war. She is also believed to be Ra’s mother. Athena is the Greek goddess of war, handicraft (weaving) and reason (wisdom), she was worshipped from 449-420 BC, while Neith was worshiped as early as 3000 BC. Neith’s worship was most prominent from 664-525 BC, but there are reports that Athena was most prominently worshiped between 900-700 BC.

While the worshipping of the two goddesses didn’t overlap, they definitely bounced a bit between the two but it comes down to first mention, and Neith has Athena beat by a few thousand years. If you’re looking to the gods and goddesses of times past to verify the role of Annabeth Chase, it's clear that she is now being more accurately portrayed. Funny how that old argument on which came first, the chicken or the egg, can also be applied to Greek and Egyptian mythology and the 21st century portrayal of one of Athena’s faux relatives.

Athena, Goddess of War.

www.flickr.com

While Riordan did not mince words in defense of Annabeth being played by Leah Jeffries, he also praised her skill in her craft: “Leah brings so much energy and enthusiasm to this role, so much of Annabeth’s strength. She will be a role model for new generations of girls who will see in her the kind of hero they want to be.”

The author helped to handpick the actors portraying his larger-than-life characters and we as an audience should not only trust his judgment, but look at the faces of the children these actors will represent. Diversity is becoming such a buzzword that people forget that you can have diversity and the best for the job. One is not exclusive of the other. It seems as if Rick Riordan and his casting team have struck that balance.

Riordan didn’t stop there. The author has a diversity program on his website called Rick Riordan Presents, with the goal of publishing four books a year by diverse writers who write in the same mythology genre. He uses this platform, and his relationship with Disney, to champion underrepresented voices. Riordan makes it clear that he strives for diversity in the spaces that he occupies and that’s a beautiful thing.

Whether the role of Annabeth Chase was played by a Black actor or not should not cause such a stir. Having a cast that looks more like the world we inhabit is a good thing and the way Riordan has leaned into representation and diversity can inspire others to do the same.

Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

A simple solution for all ages, really.

School should feel like a safe space. But after the tragic news of yet another mass shooting, many children are scared to death. As a parent or a teacher, it can be an arduous task helping young minds to unpack such unthinkable monstrosities. Especially when, in all honesty, the adults are also terrified.

Katelyn Campbell, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, worked with elementary school children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. She recently shared a simple idea that helped then, in hopes that it might help now.

The psychologist tweeted, “We had our kids draw pictures of scenery that made them feel calm—we then hung them up around the school—to make the ‘other kids who were scared’ have something calm to look at.”



“Kids, like adults, want to feel helpful when they feel helpless,” she continued, saying that drawing gave them something useful to do.

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It can be hard to find hope in hard times, but we have examples of humanity all around us.

I almost didn't create this post this week.

As the U.S. reels from yet another horrendous school massacre, barely on the heels of the Buffalo grocery store shooting and the Laguna Woods church shooting reminding us that gun violence follows us everywhere in this country, I find myself in a familiar state of anger and grief and frustration. One time would be too much. Every time, it's too much. And yet it keeps happening over and over and over again.

I've written article after article about gun violence. I've engaged in every debate under the sun. I've joined advocacy groups, written to lawmakers, donated to organizations trying to stop the carnage, and here we are again. Round and round we go.

It's hard not to lose hope. It would be easy to let the fuming rage consume every bit of joy and calm and light that we so desperately want and need. But we have to find a balance.

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