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A 'Percy Jackson' Summer Camp Thrives In Brooklyn

Campers Jai Chablat-Yates and Georgia Silverman duel with foam swords at Brownstone Books' Camp Half-Blood in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
Margot Adler
Campers Jai Chablat-Yates and Georgia Silverman duel with foam swords at Brownstone Books' Camp Half-Blood in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

With 15 million copies sold, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians children's book series has become ubiquitous in 'tween households.

Now, a summertime trend is taking the popularity of Riordan's series to a new level. From Texas to Georgia to New York, independent bookstores have been running day camps for children based on the adventures of protagonist Percy Jackson -- a kid with dyslexia and ADHD who discovers he is really the son of the sea god Poseidon, and dangerous monsters are after him.

After discovering his true identity, Percy goes to Camp Half-Blood, a training facility for young demigods and a place where he is somewhat protected with others of his kind. He then goes on various adventures involving Greek mythology mixed in with the modern world. To get to Mount Olympus, for example, you have to go to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building.

But Camp Half-Blood is no longer just a fictional training ground.

At Brownstone Books' Camp Half-Blood in Brooklyn, the campers' adventures come right out of Greek mythology. Based in nearby Prospect Park -- with its wooded paths, groves of trees and classical-looking buildings -- the camp is protected by the Golden Fleece, which looks a lot like a yellow T-shirt. Campers give offerings to the gods before they eat. There are daily quests and even prophesies that sometimes pop up on counselors' cell phones.

On one summer day, a group is battling it out with swords made from foam and masking tape and shields they had designed themselves. Counselor Jason McConnell explains the rules of engagement.

"Let's say Georgia slashes Jai's leg -- he's gotta go on one leg," McConnell says. A hit on the neck or head is "a kill."

Counselors referee the fights as the kids cry out and spectators shout advice.

"Use those shields!" one counselor shouts. "Protect your body!"

Another group of kids is creating a labyrinth with string and colored squares of paper. They hope to use it to trap monsters, but it's first used as a trivia game. Campers advance through the labyrinth by answering questions.

"What is the name of the nine-headed monster that Hercules had to kill in one of his 12 labors?" a counselor asks.

A small child immediately answers, "The Hydra."

Who stole Apollo's cows?

"Hermes! Hermes!" at least four kids shout out.

They are between 7 and 11 years old, and they really know their stuff. Campers Dinah Schone and Georgia Silverman say they've been reading D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths -- a book they say everyone and their mother has read.

Camp Half-Blood is relaxed, unregimented and definitely low-tech. The kids each have a bandanna representing their parent god -- orange for Athena, yellow for Apollo and so forth. They bring their own lunch and if someone wants to just sit in the shade and read a book, that's fine.

The bookstore that runs the camp is located in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, a diverse neighborhood with a large African-American population. Store owner and camp head Crystal Bobb-Semple says that two or three years ago, the Percy Jackson books just took off.

"The kids were so excited about the series that we got the notion to try to figure out how to extend the life of these books," she says. "We found out about a couple of other indie bookstores that were doing camps and we thought, 'Let's give it a try.' "

The camp costs $375 for the week, but bookstore supporters have raised scholarships for neighborhood kids.

Back in Prospect Park, the campers are on another quest. After discovering peacock feathers on the trail, they decide the villain is Zeus's wife, Hera.

"Hera's symbol is the peacock," one camper shouts to the others. "We think it might be Hera."

The campers walk through fields, wooded paths and up steep steps holding their shields in a line. Suddenly, there's a surprise attack from the rear. All the kids are running and screaming,

I ask Bobb-Semple what it is about Greek mythology that makes it so enduring. She says part of it is that the gods have human frailties.

"Jealousy, envy, fate," she says, "those are wonderful themes to work through, and the kids find themselves acting like the gods. So I think it is our attraction to that part of ourselves."

As for the kids, they say they like the power of the gods and their immortality. In a world filled with video games and superheroes, it's nice to know that these millennia-old deities still have traction.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career