By EDWARD NAWOTKA
For the Houston Chronicle
In April, children's book publisher Scholastic, the company that brought Harry Potter to America, flew San Antonio author Rick Riordan to Bologna, Italy. There, Riordan's job was to help explain The 39 Clues — a forthcoming multiplatform series for children incorporating books, collectible cards, video games and $100,000 in prize money — to international publishing executives.
The 39 Clues is important to Scholastic since it represents the publisher's first serious attempt to replicate Harry Potter sales. Riordan (with a long "i," like "fire") was hired to write The Maze of Bones, the first in the 10-book series, and to create the overall storyline.
An affable 43-year-old who stays in touch with his sons while he travels by joining them online to play World of Warcraft, Riordan is already a proven star in children's book world and appears to be the right man for the job.
So far, the storyline remains a mystery, although it does involve a Da Vinci Code-like conspiracy linking famous figures from history. Riordan is no help: "I don't want to jump the gun and talk about it just yet," he said by phone last week between appearances in New Jersey and New York.
He's on the road to promote the The Battle of the Labyrinth, the fourth novel in his best-selling series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Chronicling the adventures of contemporary teenagers who happen to be the children of Greek gods, the series debuted in 2005 with The Lightning Thief and has continued one book per year. In all, the first three titles have sold 1.6 million copies in 15 countries.
"Last year there was kind of an explosion of awareness among kids," Riordan said. "Part of that was Al Roker picking The Lightning Thief for his book club on the Today Show, but a lot of it was word of mouth."
The Battle of the Labyrinth, released in a cool 1 million first printing, is on pace to outsell in its first week what 2007's The Titan's Curse sold in its first three months.
Despite his success, Riordan has done little to change his life other than leave his job as a middle-school teacher at St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio.
"I still live in the same house and drive the same car," he said. "My philosophy is that my life is already complicated enough, and I don't want it to translate to my private life."
Riordan really hasn't left school behind. A significant part of his time is spent visiting bookstores and schools. The school visits allow him not only to promote his books but also to "test out (his) jokes."
Among his frequent destinations, perhaps because of its relative proximity to home, is Houston.
"It seems like I'm there every two weeks," Riordan said. "The kids in Houston have been very receptive and appreciative."
Riordan's local fans include 12-year-old David Cremins, a sixth-grader at Memorial Middle School.
"It's really interesting how he uses ancient Greek myths and history and turns it into modern-day scenarios and battles," said Cremins, who checked out The Battle of the Labyrinth from Houston Public Library last Friday and finished the next day. "I've read all four now, and it's definitely one of my favorite series."
Cremins estimates that half of the 30 kids in his sixth-grade class are fans, many of them boys. Riordan's ability to appeal to pre-teen boys — a demographic frequently identified as "reluctant readers" — is especially unusual.
One reason may be the personal element the author has injected into the books. While Percy may be a son of Poseidon, he also has dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. So does one of Riordan's two sons.
"My son was in second grade when he was diagnosed. At the time he was only interested in Greek mythology, so when I ran out of the original stories, he told me to make one up."
For nearly a decade before Percy came along, Riordan was known for his mystery novels featuring San Antonio private investigator Tres Navarre. The series, which debuted in 1997 and includes seven books, are, he warns on his Web site, "grown-up mysteries with R-rated content."
Though Riordan won numerous industry awards for the mysteries, he found his calling in writing for a younger audience.
"I was always a storyteller in the classroom, and my students would ask me why I wasn't writing for children," he said. "It took me a long time to figure out that they were right."
The Tres Navarre series, along with the Percy Jackson series, will end next year, Riordan said. But Percy will live on in movies, starting with the Thanksgiving 2009 release of The Lightning Thief. Chris Columbus, the man who directed the first two Harry Potter movies, is adapting it for the screen.
In 2010 Riordan will begin a new series based on Camp Half-Blood, a New Jersey summer camp for demi-gods depicted in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all but ensuring he'll be a regular on the road and a frequent visitor to our town.
At some point he might even find time to visit Greece.
"The closest I've ever gotten is Malta, where it is rumored the Cave of Calypso is supposed to be," he said. "I would like to go."