By MOTOKO RICH
New York Times News Service
When Rick Riordan was recently researching the life of Benjamin Franklin for the first book in a new children's fiction series about the most powerful family in the world, he came across an essay about flatulence written by the founding father better known for his experiments with electricity and awaking early.
``Come on, when you're writing for kids, that's just a must right there,'' said Riordan during an interview at the New-York Historical Society, where he sat on a bench in front of a glass case full of busts of Franklin. ``It's an automatic connection. I had to put that in there.''
So far Riordan (pronounced RYE-r-don) is chiefly known as the author of the popular Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, about the adventures of a young boy who is half Greek god, half human. Now he has written ``The Maze of Bones,'' the first installment of ``The 39 Clues,'' a new series that Scholastic, the American publisher of the Harry Potter books, is releasing next Tuesday.
Calling upon his experience of 15 years as a middle school English and history teacher, Riordan sought to fill the book with details that would be educational but also ensnare the average preteen reader.
``My goal in the classroom was always to make sure they were having so much fun that they didn't realize they were learning,'' he said. ``I saw `The 39 Clues' as a potential vehicle for doing some education in a fun way _ to take some of these amazing stories from history, dust them off and make them alive.''
``The 39 Clues'' is planned as a 10-book mystery series for 8- to 12-year-olds, with a different historical figure making a central appearance in each one. Scholastic is publishing it on an aggressive timetable, with plans to release one book every two to three months. In addition to writing the first book, Riordan has outlined the next nine novels, which will be written by other authors.
The story, devised in part by Scholastic's editors, follows the exploits of Amy and Dan Cahill, two orphans, 14 and 11, who are competing against other branches of the sprawling Cahill family (a clan that has had ``a greater impact on human civilization than any other family in history'') to discover the first of 39 clues. Those clues are the keys to a secret that, when revealed, will lead to ultimate power. Scholastic has deployed its considerable marketing fire power behind the new series, which is tied to a Web-based game (the39clues.scholastic.com) and collectors' cards. The publisher, which thrived on the enormous success of the Harry Potter novels, is facing the reality that many children are as engrossed in the Internet and video games as they are in books.
``The idea is that every aspect will add to the storytelling in its own way,'' said David Levithan, an executive editorial director for multimedia publishing at Scholastic. ``The Web or card experience is not at all going to replicate the book experience, nor is the book experience going to replicate the Web.'' The Percy Jackson novels grew out of bedtime stories he told his older son, Haley, now 13, shortly after he was identified as having attention deficit disorder and dyslexia five years ago. Riordan started by telling Haley the Greek myths, but when he ran out of tales, he invented the story of a modern Greek hero. ``Percy was born out of desperation,'' he said.
At Haley's request, Riordan, who had by then already published five detective novels for adults set in and around his native San Antonio, decided to write a manuscript for what became ``The Lightning Thief.''
The book was sold at auction to Miramax Books in 2004 for a low six-figure sum, enough for Riordan to quit his teaching job and focus full-time on writing. The first four books in the series have sold nearly 1.5 million copies, according to figures from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales.
Riordan has just completed the fifth and final book in the Percy Jackson series, now published by Hyperion Books, a division of Disney. That will be released next May. The film version of the first book, which was optioned by Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, is being directed by Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter movies; it is scheduled to come out in November 2009.