Race to the Sun is the new book capturing my 4th and 5th graders’ hearts, but not without controversy. First, the positive. You know Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson fame, yes? Yes. Riordan is as synonymous with mythology as Rowling is with wizardry. He has fictionalized Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology in a way that captivates all but the most reluctant reader. Fans love his inclusive storytelling and in 2018 he created an imprint called Riordan Presents to amplify #ownvoices. Its mission is to publish authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds so they can tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their heritage. Race to the Sun is a Riordon Presents book.
The book tells the story of a young Navajo girl named Nizhoni Begay who can suddenly detect monsters masquerading as humans. One of these monsters is Mr. Charles, a professional-looking man in a business suit offering her single father a new job. Nizhoni’s father ignores her warnings, so when he goes missing the next day, it is up to Nizhoni and her brother Mac to call upon their Navajo heritage, the Diné Holy People, and a few friends along the way to rescue dad and stop Mr. Charles from unleashing ancient monsters. The story takes its inspiration from The Legend of the Navajo Hero Twins and the cover features artwork by Native American artist Dale Ray Deforest.
My students enjoyed the book’s exhilarating pace and the quirky cast of characters. Kirkus gave it a starred review and said, “Native readers will see themselves as necessary heroes while readers of all walks will want to be their accomplices.“
Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) of American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) does not endorse the book. Reese felt the Diné Writers Collective would find cultural appropriation and view the characters as mere caricatures. She later reposted a more nuanced criticism that called Race to the Sun a “mishmash of coming of age tropes from various non-Native cultures and from popular American culture, sprinkled with just enough familiar Navajo elements (hogans, Navajo tacos, geographic icons, and the like) to label it a Navajo story.”
While valid, this criticism can easily address most literature published today if you replace “Navajo” with the culture/theme/setting of choice. I get teased often that I never like a book and, yes, I am a demanding (discerning!) reader. I have read an unthinkable number of books in my life and have read some pretty amazing work by consequence. Rick Riordan is not it. Parents are not buying Rick Riordan because they think they are buying their kids a baby Pulitzer. Parents are buying Rick Riordan because their kids will read Rick Riordan.
Kids love the short chapters, the fast pace, and the vaguely familiar plot. They love the goofy humor, the snappy dialogue, and the fact the characters drink Mountain Dew and eat Cheetos. They are not determining “what will it contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays.” They just are not! Every year the top three books with the highest circulation in my library are one of the fifteen Diary of a Wimpy Kids books. I run the report every year, and every year it is a knife in my heart because I spend a ridiculous amount of time reading and buying fantastic children’s literature that largely goes unread. I spent almost three years trying to get my students to read Piecing Me Together. I even put it on my library home page. Instead, I have a hold list a mile long for The Selection and Red Queen.
I have sat on this book for weeks because I do not know how I feel about it. I love that it gets kids reading. So many of my students adored Race to the Sun, but if you are looking for an #ownvoices book, this is not it. Instead, search this list of recommended books. As for its literary merit, an independent book owner I respect once told me to embrace Rick Riordan. (Literally; I was complaining about Rick Riordan.) That has been my attitude the past year. Buy the books they will read because kids need to read. When you can push the great stuff. If you reach even one student, you made progress. Do not give up.
Details for Parents and Educators
Book Level: 4.6
Interest Level: Middle Grades (MG 4-8)
AR Points: 10.0
Word Count: 71509
Topic – Subtopic: Adventure-Misc./Other; Family Life-Misc./Other; People-Native American;