Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan calls out racist backlash to Leah Jeffries’ casting

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Percy Jackson & the Olympians is a five-book fantasy series in which Greek Gods are around in the present day and adventure ensures. The books were published in the mid-aughts and two movies based on them came out in 2010 and 2013. Now the books are being adapted into a Disney+ series and casting was recently announced.

A young actress named Leah Jeffries was cast as Annabeth Chase, who was portrayed by Alexandra Daddario in the movies. And wouldn’t you know, there was racist backlash against Leah’s casting because she is Black and Annabeth is described as having blonde hair and light eyes in the book. So-called fans really bullied this 12-year-old girl and got her TikTok banned because they were unhappy with her casting. Rick Riordan, the books’ author, wrote a detailed blog post speaking out against the backlash and its inherent racism.

Rick Riordan, author of the popular YA adventure novel series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, is speaking out amid backlash in casting one of his characters in Disney+’s upcoming series adaptation.

In a blog post Tuesday, Riordan criticized those “who have a problem with the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase,” saying “It’s a shame such posts need to be written, but they do.”

Jeffries, whose credits include Empire, was cast last week along with Aryan Simhadri to to star alongside Walker Scobell who will play Percy Jackson in the 20th Television-produced series. Simhadri and Jeffries will play Percy’s friends Grover and Annabeth, respectively. Production is starting soon in Vancouver.

In the book series, Annabeth is a true daughter of the Greek goddess Athena, a brilliant strategist with an active and curious mind. After having spent the last five years at Camp Half-Blood, she longs to test her mettle in the human world, of which she barely remembers. She trains Percy to survive the mythological world, and in turn, he helps her connect with her humanity. She is also portrayed in the books as white.

“I have been clear, as the author, that I was looking for the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary for me,” Riordan wrote. “We did that. We took a year to do this process thoroughly and find the best of the best. This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.”

He added: “You are judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks. She is a Black girl playing someone who was described in the books as white.

“Friends, that is racism.”

He also called it bullying, saying, “Whatever else you take from this post, we should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong. As strong as Leah is, as much as we have discussed the potential for this kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now.”

Riordan said the production followed Disney’s company policy on nondiscrimination, and that the casting process “was long, intense, massive and exhaustive.”

“The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength,” he wrote. “There is power in plurality. The things that distinguish us from one another are often our marks of individual greatness. You should never judge someone by how well they fit your preconceived notions. That neurodivergent kid who has failed out of six schools, for instance, may well be the son of Poseidon. Anyone can be a hero.

“If you don’t get that, if you’re still upset about the casting of this marvelous trio, then it doesn’t matter how many times you have read the books. You didn’t learn anything from them.”

[From Deadline]

The whole blog post is worth a read. Rick is very involved in the adaptation, including writing, production, and casting. And he’s completely supportive of Leah’s casting and diverse casting in general, saying that they was looking for “the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary.” Which is exactly right since it’s a fictional character. And it’s a fantasy series. If you can suspend disbelief that Greek Gods and mythology are (a) real and (b) around in the 21st century, you can certainly suspend disbelief that someone may not look exactly as their character was canonically described. I’m really glad Rick stuck up for Leah and called it what it is: racism, whether or not the “fans” realize it. And I’m guessing they do. I don’t recall anyone being this upset (or upset at all) that Daniel Radcliffe was definitely not 6′ and didn’t have the green eyes that were such an important part of Harry Potter‘s story, or that Jennifer Lawrence was taller and healthier-looking than Katniss Everdeen was described to be. But I do remember people saying they were less sad when Rue died in the movie because they didn’t realize she was Black in the books.

Alexandra Daddario posted a message of support too. I can’t get over the fact that these fans — many of whom are presumably adults based on when the books and movies came out — bullied an actual child online.

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41 Responses to “Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan calls out racist backlash to Leah Jeffries’ casting”

  1. JFerber says:

    Good on him for speaking out. The actress is adorable and if she fits the role, perfect.

    • HelloDolly! says:

      Right??? Look at this cutie! I see her and think of sunshine and rainbows. She is absolutely adorable, and other people are awful.

    • Ariel says:

      It is sad that it is necessary, but i am now a huge fan of this man.
      Racism is insidious, because racists know racism isn’t palatable in the public forum, the dress up their racist complaints with other rules and reasons why a person of color is lesser, or not appropriate.
      Calling racism what it is- is a huge win for human decency. Even in something as small as a kids movie/tv show.

    • Barrett says:

      This looks great. My niece loves these books. Shut up haters. Look forward to seeing this cast.

    • BeanieBean says:

      I read the headline & recognized no names, but saw the photo of this really cute kid & had to read the story. My god, people are horrible. I’m glad the author wrote what he did, I hope it reaches the racists numbskulls it needed to, but I fear they may be beyond reason. Still, they’re the ones missing out. If this is their kind of thing, Disney’s going to make a great series & Leah Jeffries is definitely the one to watch.
      Also, how can anyone get a child’s TikTok account banned???

  2. Amy Bee says:

    It’s unfortunate that he had to do this but it good that he did.

  3. Ninks says:

    People can be so gross. I remember when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games and people were awful about that too, even though it’s clear the character isn’t white in the books. But i think there’s more pushback now when the racists complain, at least I don’t remember Amandla being defended in the same way by people involved in the production. It’s good to see Rick Riordan being vocal in his defense and so sad that I’m not at all surprised that he had to. (Funnily enough none of the people complaining about Rue being played by a Black actress were concerned about Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrellson being cast as characters that also were not white in the books. The only complaint about Jennifer’s casting was that she wasn’t thin enough.)

    • BeanieBean says:

      Interesting how that works, right? I just finished rewatching the Inspector Lynley series. Having read the books, I know Lynley was described as tall & blonde, while the fellow who played him was tall & dark (and handsome). Books and their TV or movie representations are different media; they live separately & independently, so how they’re cast just doesn’t matter.

    • Otaku fairy says:

      It is. And the way they try to justify it is by saying things like “I’m not racist. I’m just speaking out against companies and creators bowing down to wokeness”. Which is bs. Going out of your way to make poc- especially kids- targets or ‘debate’ punching bags to support your daily edgelord 2 cool 4 wokeness crusades, and assuming the only reason they could have hired her is because they’re afraid to not look progressive are both still racist behaviors.

  4. Bettyrose says:

    Can a white author write a black POV character? Or should they? IDK. Rue is definitely black in the book from a predominantly black district, but she’s not a POV character. I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books so I have no sense of the characters but a white male author- the most common kind of widely published author – isn’t really going to tell the story of a black girl. So it’s great to see the source material interpreted differently for screen adaptation. That’s how art works.

    • Call Me Mabel says:

      Annabeth is a deuteragonist but Percy is the POV character. The nifty thing is that in other books and other series that are connected, Annabeth’s family plays a large role which would bring more POC to the forefront.

    • Noodle says:

      I teach a lot of children’s literature, and this question comes up a lot. From an academic perspective, the fact that this is from the fantasy genre allows for a white author to write a character who is BIPOC a lot more than say, historical fiction would. Critics bring up the question of authenticity (which is why white authors are discouraged from writing from a BIPOC point of view in historical fiction – they lack the experience and insight to write from that POV where authenticity is key), but in fantasy, there isn’t a lot of authenticity to be had. These aren’t real people doing real things that need to be portrayed authentically.

      • BeanieBean says:

        Interesting perspective, thanks!

      • bettyrose says:

        Noodle – That makes sense. Again, I haven’t read the books and can’t comment on this author’s choices of representation, but I appreciate that he’s open to different interpretations of his work and taking a stand to support that.

    • Meg3 says:

      If authors create “white characters only” then it’s also not great because the book world is non-diverse. But of course if diverse (side) characters are just there so that boxes can be ticked off, it’s not great either. IDK. Also (white) authors are reluctant to make villains BIPOC.

  5. Call Me Mabel says:

    Actually, “fans” were very upset because Jennifer Lawrence was not olive skinned as Katniss is described. Other “fans” were upset that she had a different body type than Katniss. “Fans” always mad about something. Some of it justified, some of it much less so……

    • bettyrose says:

      I wasn’t “upset” about that, exactly. Initially, I was thrilled with the casting because I’m such a fan of Winter’s Bone, which is practically a screen test for Hunger Games. But I’ve reread the series a couple more times, and it’s true that JLaw just doesn’t fit the physical description of Katniss as the smallest tribute being so tall (and taller than Peeta of all things). She nails the attitude, though, and I love her for that. Rue is a small but important part that was perfectly cast with a delightful young actress. Anyone who has an issue with that casting is just telling on themselves.

  6. BlueSky says:

    The same people who don’t want slavery taught in schools because they don’t want white children to feel bad are the same people who have no problem bullying and traumatizing a 12 year old black girl.

  7. Kiera says:

    That comment about reading the books but not learning from them is so poignant. It’s amazing to me how white/bro culture has grown up on so many things that are about diversity/differences being strengths, etc and still have the capacity to be so horrid.

    • TigerMcQueen says:

      I loved that comment, and everything he said about difference being strength and not judging on your preconceived notions. I love how passionate he is about the messages in his books. I wish the author of another set of books about magical children would be that way.

      • Kiera says:

        She’s a troglodyte

      • Steph says:

        She did publicly support the casting of a Black actress playing Hermione in The Cursed Child but didn’t take it far enough bc she didn’t blatantly call it racism.

  8. Stacey Dresden says:

    What a beautiful little girl. What TF is wrong with people

    • BothSidesNow says:

      Racism is strong and out in this country. It’s a trait taught from one generation to the next. Children aren’t born to be racist, they are taught by their parents. The fact that they bullied a poor child is inexcusable.

      I applaud his comments made in her defense. They chose the actors based on talent alone. It’s a terrible time that our society has become such a hateful and harmful atmosphere. I hope that this young lady is well protected from the haters. And the haters can FO!

  9. SourcesclosetoKate says:

    Omg what a cute kid. She’s got star quality for sure. Dakota fanning move over! Anyway, I hate when these things happen to children, it’s society abusing children! She is too little to be hearing this. I hope she has good people around her protecting her and keeping her happy What a sad state of the world we’re living in.

  10. Becks1 says:

    I’m looking forward to this series; I didn’t love the movies but I really wanted to (since my 10 year old loved the books). I did read the Riordan didnt love the casting (or maybe just the script?) for the movie since they made all the characters about 5 years older than they were in the books. So for him I think he saw this as a chance to fix that mistake and its clear he’s on board with the casting, and i think she seems like a good pick.

    His comments against racism and the backlash to her are perfect and I’m glad he’s standing up for her.

    • Ripley says:

      I signed my son, who is obsessed with all of his books, to “attend” his book tour. Which was a zoom call at the end of the day, but it was so cool. My son thought you questions and sent ahead of time and then received a signed book and t-shirt. Throughout the discussion, he spoke to this production and another one for Netflix. Seems deeply involved with his books and the tv/movie productions. And I’m so loving this response. Can’t wait for it to come out.

  11. Juju says:

    His comments make me want to start reading these books with my daughters! So many authors, producers etc try to address these types of fan reactions without directly calling it what it is, which is racism. He did not mince words.

    It makes me sick that there are so many people that would bully this girl. The state of the world is so concerning.

    • crazykuroneko says:

      I grew up reading the books from the Percy Jackson & the Olympians and the Heroes of Olympus series, and I really recommend it. Riordan initially wrote the stories as bed-time stories his neodivergent son so he could feel better about himself, so he’s really passionate about the message.

      Plus, those “fans” forgot how Riordan has used his privilege as a white man to open more channels for POC writers and stories; he created an imprint where he helped POC writers publishing stories based on the mythologies from their home countries. So ofc he wouldn’t stay silent on this

    • Noodle says:

      I am really happy with his statement, and his statement calling it what it is – racism. We need more white people calling out racism and discrimination among white people. The fact that he has authority over this puts him in a perfect place to castigate the racist jerks.

    • liz says:

      Riordan’s books were being published as my Kiddo was growing up and we read them as they were being released. They were and are just wonderful. They started as stories he was telling to his son, who is dyslexic and has ADHD, so Percy is dyslexic and has ADHD. My Kiddo isn’t dyslexic (my niece and nephew are), but has serious ADHD and it meant the world to them that this wonderful storybook character was like them.

      We were not fans of the movies, Kiddo really disliked them. Riordan wasn’t as involved in the movies as he is this time. Just his statement about the casting gives me hope.

    • Otaku fairy says:

      I don’t remember this series at all, but it sounds interesting. I think I’ll check it out.

  12. Louise177 says:

    I don’t know anything about social media but why was Leah’s TikTok banned and those making the comments wasn’t? It’s troubling that people feel free to pick on a 12 year old.

  13. Steph says:

    I read this series as an adult and still loved them. I’m looking fwd to the new series. Leah Jeffries is really, really, really, adorable! Annabeth is cold and stony.i can’t wait to see what she does with the role bc her face looks so sweet.

  14. Christine says:

    I remember Alexandra getting hate too because she wasn’t blonde in the movies. I just don’t understand fan culture. I especially don’t understand weaponizing it to be about race. I’m a huge reader and some adaptations I like and some I don’t, but it’s never about what one of the characters looks like. It has to be heart breaking for Rick Riordan to realize that his fans can be so toxic.

  15. Jess says:

    I always loved Rick’s books more than the Harry Potter books. And I love him c selling this out. I had to argue with my sister in law when Ava cast Storm Reid, a Black actor, as the star of A Wrinkle in Time. And my sister in law is one of those well intentioned middle age white women who is a Dem and hates the right wing nuts but isn’t aware of her own biases yet. I think a lot of people are still so caught up on skin color, which is just so bizarre.

  16. MsIam says:

    So many of these “fan bases” are toxic. Marvel, Star Wars, Wheel of Time, etc. And the majority of the complaints are about “woke” or whatever. It’s sad that a kids/YA book series is falling victim to that b.s. too but good for the author for not tolerating that nonsense. And shame on the bullies for coming after a middle school aged child.

  17. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    I’m happy dancing around his comments. Perfection. She’s aahh-DORA-ble. I wanna hug her right now lol.

  18. Otaku fairy says:

    It’s good that Rick Riordan and Alexandria Daddario are showing their support. This still happens way too often. A 12-year-old should not be burdened with defending herself against racism. Even though that’s been the reality for a long time, kids shouldn’t be left to deal with it on their own and be put in the position of, ‘how do I handle this?’ Nobody should have to period. The experience is already traumatic enough in and of itself.

  19. HeatherC says:

    It’s not about being faithful to the books (and when the author speaks out, that goes out the window as well).

    The Percy Jackson series deals with the children of the gods, the demi gods. The same ones who don’t want their children to learn about slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow are the same ones clutching their pearls and tearing their hair out at the idea of their children seeing Athena’s daughter as black.

    My son did not like the books about the other magical children but loved the Percy Jackson books. They’re pretty good.

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