'The Sun and The Star': It’s Okay When Characters Can’t Grow Up With You, by Ethan K. Poole
In Rick Riordan’s 2007 novel The Titan’s Curse, he introduced the character of Nico di Angelo, a 10-year-old boy with a lot of issues. Now, 16 years later, Rick Riordan and Mark Oshiro’s The Sun and The Star follows the story of Nico di Angelo, a 15-year-old boy with a lot of issues.
It’s not very hard to notice that those timelines don't match up. This may not seem strange at first: Tons of kid's franchises have characters who never age, who never get the opportunity to grow up. What's interesting is that this wasn't always the case with this series.
If you were 12 when the first Percy Jackson book was published, like Percy was, then you'd be around 16 when the final book was released, which takes place on Percy's very own 16th birthday. It was a series kids could grow up with, watching its characters mature alongside them. Nico, four years younger than Percy, filled a similar role for younger members of the audience, as he grew from 10 to 12 in two real years. His last three years, though, have taken 14 to pass.
Kids now will not be able to look to this series to mature along with them, at least not in book form. Due to the nature of television filming, the upcoming Percy Jackson and the Olympians miniseries will have its actors get older in real time, of course. But that adaptation is inevitably going to run up against the same problem of growing older, just this time with actors as well as audience. Even the upcoming Percy Jackson and the Chalice of the Gods is going to be set before The Sun and The Star, so that Percy will still be in highschool in order to squeeze one more adventure out of his adolescence. This series has transformed to one where the characters will eventually stagnate, never quite becoming real adults, trapped in a state of permanent childhood.
And that's a good thing.
The world continues to progress. This year’s aforementioned The Sun and The Star contains references to Lil Nas X and other modern pop culture, it contains modern cell phones and other technology, and it is obviously written with the intention of taking place in the present day. Time has not stopped in the narrative; it is not still 2011 as it would be chronologically. Nico and the other demigods are the only ones stuck in time.
Instead of growing up, they all stay eminently relatable for their target audience. It's a good move for the series to shift from taking place in real time to just taking place “in the present day” from whenever you’re reading it. This way, Nico remains a character modern children can look to as a role model, which is far more valuable than having him be a 26-year-old man for the sake of realism.
In many ways, The Sun and The Star is still a lot like The Titan’s Curse. They’re both modern reimaginings of Greek mythological stories, and they use this fantastical iconography as a lens with which to view emotional struggles that are relatable to the children reading them. That has always been the core of what makes this series so compelling, and why it remains such a relevant force in the world of children’s literature. It’s what drew so many kids to these books in the first place.
Nico’s perspective offers many lessons about self-acceptance and dealing with new and unfair pressures. This is invaluable to children, and it would be harder for a much older main character to have the same effect. For example, Nico learning to accept himself as gay offers an empowering story for many children, and while there is certainly a place for similar stories about adults, the Percy Jackson franchise is not that place.
In The Sun and The Star, Nico’s story addresses learning how to process and accept your own traumatic memories and how to make peace with your inner demons, as well as how to express negative feelings in a non-destructive way. These are issues many people struggle with for the first time around Nico’s age. He serves as both a role model for how to manage these feelings and a reassurance that it is possible, something that a lot of children might really need.
Good children’s literature plays an important part of a kid’s mental and psychological development, but it is also best appreciated by children themselves. The Sun and The Star, as enjoyable as it was, definitely did not make me feel the same way older books in the series did. I found a lot of it cute and fun, and I felt that the darker moments were very well executed and properly dramatic, but I didn’t really resonate with any of the story’s emotions like I did when I was a kid.
Of course I didn’t — I’ve aged out of the target audience, as have most of the people who were once the same age as these characters. Still, I fully believe that the children of today will be able to look back on this new book the way that I can look back on the originals. It is the kind of book that sticks with kids, that sparks creativity and curiosity in them. The kind that deserves a place in school libraries and on children’s bookshelves.
Not everything can grow up with you. Sometimes, things will remain young and juvenile, and you’ll have to become an adult without them. You’ll outpace characters who used to be older than you; fictional childhood role models will become more nostalgic than aspirational. A kid protagonist can only grow up so much before they lose their relatability to their target audience, and with it, their ability to inspire growth in others.
It’s okay when characters can’t grow up with you because it means that they’ll get to be as impactful on the next generation of kids as they were for you. While it might be nice to see stories mature at the same time that you do, it can be even nicer to see them stay right where they need to be for more people to experience what's so great about them.