On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes award-winning Author Lamar Giles to the show on Monday, November 23 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
“I like puzzles and Legos, and writing a mystery feels like the literary version of putting something together.” – Lamar Giles
Lamar Giles grew up loving scary stories, and the novels of Stephen King in particular. He fulfilled his dream of meeting King, one of his literary heroes, as a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the most coveted prize for mystery writers.
Giles’ newly-published The Last Mirror On The Left, continues his series for middle graders on the multiverse misadventures of cousins Otto and Sheed. Older readers may be more familiar with Giles’ thrillers, which feature the sort of Black heroes he longed to read about when he was a teen.
There’s Nikki Tate, the teen card shark in Overturned, who endeavors to get her wrongfully-convicted father off death row, and Nick Pearson of Fake ID, the gritty Witness Protection Plan mystery. But Giles has flexed other literary muscles too. In Not So Pure And Simple, teenaged Del confronts toxic masculinity and social pressure.
We also welcome the students of Hagerstown’s Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, our school of the week. We’re looking forward to their questions for Lamar Giles — and questions from any young person who wants to call in to talk about Giles’ work or their own reading and writing.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Lamar Giles Young Adult Author; @LRGiles
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest on Kojo for Kids is Lamar Giles. He's an award-winning author of books for tweens and teens, including "Fake ID" and "Endangered," and most recently, "The Last Mirror on the Left." He's also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that advocates for children's books that reflect all kinds of kids. When he was growing up, Lamar Giles loved reading scary stories and mysteries. But, as a black kid, he always wondered why the main characters were almost never black.
KOJO NNAMDIAs an adult, Lamar Giles is trying to help fix that problem the best way he knows how, by writing books that feature young, black sleuths and crime solvers. He's going to talk with us today about how he works suspense, plot twists and even a bit of romance into his award-winning novels for tweens and teens.
KOJO NNAMDIWe also welcome today the students from the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, our school of the week in Hagerstown, Maryland. We look forward to their questions and questions from you, too, if you are a kid. Adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, we take kids' calls only. Lamar Giles, welcome to the program.
LAMAR GILESThank you for having me. How are you?
NNAMDII am doing well, and I hope you're staying safe and doing well, yourself.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about when you were a kid. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
GILESI was born and raised in Hopewell, Virginia, which is a town in Central Virginia situated between the James River and Fort Lee Army Base. And, in Hopewell, there were factory workers, there were teachers, there were nurses. And my mom was a factory worker. She did that for 32 years. And when she was at work making ends meet, I read, watched TV, watched movies and developed as a storyteller.
NNAMDIAnd that was what you liked to do, mostly, as a kid?
GILESIt's what I liked to do, mostly, and also, I was shy. So, it was a way for me to enjoy myself and not feel at the mercy of some of the tougher and meaner kids in my neighborhood.
NNAMDIBut a lot of kids like to read, however, you particularly like to read scary stories. Why did you love, and why do you still love scary books?
GILESI think it had a lot to do with my grandfather and my cousins, because that's the sort of stuff they loved. And I would watch TV with them, I would read the books they recommend. My grandfather was a big fan of "The Twilight Zone," so that was huge in our house. And my cousins would show me the scariest movies possible from the time I was five years old, so I was sort of indoctrinated early.
NNAMDILamar, you really liked one author in particular when you were a kid, Stephen King who, up until today, has a lot of people mispronouncing my name my calling me Cujo, but that's a whole other story. (laugh) How did you get into his novels, which are pretty scary for even adults?
GILESWell, the thing was, I was reading well beyond my grade level early. And I would visit the library and I would check out books, but I also wanted to own books. And because we didn't have a bookstore in Hopewell, we bought books, or I did, from the grocery store. And back then, the author you could always find in a grocery store was Stephen King. And so, I would save my own money and buy his books, because the other author that you could always find was, like, Danielle Steel. And I just gravitated to Stephen King more than Danielle Steel.
NNAMDI(laugh) Well, I'm sure you read "Cujo," but thank you for not mispronouncing my name in that way, like a lot of other people do. (laugh) But you were desperate to meet Stephen King and shake his hand. Did you ever get to do that?
GILESI did. I did. In 2015, my novel "Fake ID" was nominated for an Edgar Award for the Mystery Writers of America. And it was the same year that Stephen King's novel "Mr. Mercedes" was nominated for best novel. And at the VIP party -- I didn't feel like a VIP, but that's what they called it -- the VIP party before the award ceremony, he was there. And I was scared to go talk to him, but my wife made me do it. She said I'd regret it if I didn't.
GILESAnd I went up to him, I shook his hand, I thanked him for the books he wrote, he congratulated me. And then I started to kind of rant, and I talked to him until I ran out of breath. And when I ran out of breath, he said, at least you didn't turn into a psychopath. (laugh) One of the cooler nights of my career.
NNAMDIWell, that was very different from the night your mom and you got tickets to hear him at George Washington University, when apparently you chickened out.
GILESIt was. It was. Six months before, we had gotten tickets to see him speak at George Washington, and...
NNAMDIYou had already been published.
GILESYeah, and I had already been published. And at the Q&A portion of the event, I was right by the microphone. I could've gotten up and asked him a question, and I chickened out, and a bunch of people got in line before me. But see, here's the thing. I beat myself up about that. I was mad, and my mom told me afterwards, she was like, you never know. You'll still get the chance to meet him, I promise. And she was right.
NNAMDIBefore we go to the phones, Lamar, you started writing when you were very young. Can you tell us about your earliest writing projects, maybe one that had to do with an unusual box of cereal?
GILESYes. When I was in fourth grade, our teacher insisted we all participate in a young author's contest, where we had to write and illustrate our own books. And I wrote and illustrated a book called "Giant Dinosaur Inside," about a boy who picks up a box of cereal that says there's a giant dinosaur in it. It's supposed to be a toy, but he doesn't follow the rules and wait until the box is empty. He sticks his hand in and tries to get the toy out, and ends up unleashing Godzilla.
NNAMDIGood grief. (laugh) What a way to start out. Okay. Here now is Ethan, who is a sophomore at Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland. Ethan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ETHANHi. Hey, I just wanted to call in and ask a question. Since I'm a younger, aspiring writer, what do you think is the one tip or skill that you think I'm going to need to get down in order to have a successful career in writing?
GILESOh, well, thank you for the question, Ethan. And I would say if I had to recommend one skill to focus on, I would say focus on finishing. Because, even at my level, when I do this as my full-time job, I find in the middle of every project, I sort of get excited about the next project. And that's been the case for me my entire writing life.
GILESBut what I found to be most valuable is making myself focus and push through to the end of a project before starting the next one. And that's sort of necessary if you're going to do this for a job. It doesn't mean you won't ever stop a project. Sometimes you just know it's not going to work, but I think you should be finishing more than you stop. And if you can master that, I think you're well on your way.
NNAMDISo, when you start thinking about the next project, does that make you tend to lose focus on the project you're currently writing on, and therefore you have to really concentrate more and make sure you complete it?
GILESOh, absolutely. In the middle of any project, you start to kind of lose focus, at least I do. I start to worry about the quality of the work. I don't know if it's going to be a good book. And that makes you want to go to something else because you think if you start over, you'll do better. But I've learned to fight that and really push through. And I've made a career out of doing that. And so, I always tell people, try to work on finishing, despite the doubt voices in your head.
NNAMDIHere is Heaven, who's a senior at Barbara Ingram School. Heaven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HEAVENHi. So, my question is, what, if any, has been your biggest regret as a published writer?
GILESWhat, if anything, has been my biggest regret as a published writer. I regret not being able to continue the "Fake ID" series beyond the first book. That was my first published young adult novel, and I wanted to do three books. But sometimes, that's out of your control, as a writer. The publisher makes business decisions, and maybe they see a different course. They want you to do something different, and so I never got to continue that story. And I feel like so many years have passed, like even if I could force the issue now -- which, because of my career going well, I maybe could -- I think it's kind of past the point of where it would work. And that's my biggest regret.
NNAMDIHeaven, thank you very much for your call. There's another call from Howa, (ph) who's a sophomore at Barbara Ingram School. Howa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HOWAHi. My question is, do you think that it's harder for minorities to get into writing, particularly younger people, than their nonminority counterparts, because they know they'll, like, face more issues and problems going into their writing?
GILESI don't think it's difficult for anyone to get into the writing part. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you can write. Now, as far as being published and getting into the business and having an editor acquire and publish your book, that can be iffy, and it's been hard, traditionally. I think, in recent years, we've started to see some change. The gatekeepers have become more open to more diverse writers and stories, and that should continue to expand.
GILESBut it still requires a bit of struggle to convince people who may not know your story or know your community to sometimes sign off on the stories you want to tell from a community that hasn't been represented. So, it just becomes a matter of finding the people who say yes, and that has to be your focus. You know some people may not get it. You've got to find the ones that do.
NNAMDIWhen you were a kid -- and, by the way, thank you very much for your call, Howa. When you were a kid, you didn't see many black characters in the novels you read. What was that like for you, reading those books?
GILESIt was hard to maintain a love for reading. In the beginning when we're little kids and we're in story time, we all love to talk in animals. And then you get to the point where you love the kid spies, the kid detectives, but you start to realize that they all sort of look the same, and they don't look like you. And I loved to read early, but it came a point where I was getting so frustrated, I almost got away from it.
GILESThankfully I was able to discover some writers I didn't know about, like Walter Dean Myers, who was writing stories about young black people. And that gave me some hope that there was a path to more work I wanted to read and possibly being able to publish the work I was writing.
NNAMDIYou helped create a group called We Need Diverse Books. Tell us about that, why you created it, and what it does.
GILESWell, We Need Diverse Books is the brainchild of Ellen Oh, who's a Korean-American fantasy author. And I happened to be with her the day that she proposed this organization to me and Newberry Award-winning author Meg Medina. And the idea was that we just wanted to bring attention to the fact that there were way more readers and way more subject matters that needed to be explored and serviced than what the publishing industry was doing at the time. This was back in 2014, and the organization blew up. We got media attention all over the world, so we made it a nonprofit and started to institute various programs to help diverse creators get more attention.
NNAMDILamar, you have published seven books, and most of them are for older kids and teens. But just last month, you published one for some with younger kids, which is part of "The Legendary Alston Boys" series. Can you tell us about the Alston Boys and this newest book, "The Last Mirror on the Left?"
GILESWell, the Alston Boys are Otto and Sheed. They're cousins and they're the supernatural detectives of their very weird county in Virginia. They've been on one adventure already called "The Last Last Day of Summer," and now their new adventure is "The Last Mirror on the Left," which has them crossing through a magical mirror into a dimension where they're in a version of their town that's really whacky.
GILESThey have to track down a fugitive. And as they're tracking down this fugitive, they start to question if they're actually serving justice or helping corrupt the justice system by chasing this person they don't know that much about.
NNAMDII hear you're willing to read to us from "The Legendary Alston Boys" series. What did you bring to read for us?
GILESWell, I figured it best to start with the first book, so I brought an excerpt from "The Last Last Day of Summer," which is book one.
GILESI'll start right now.
GILESMr. Flux stooped on one knee, his arms lost in the mouth of his bag while he searched. Finally, he sprang upright. "Here." Balanced on the man's palm was a camera, bulky with a strap to hang around your neck and a slim slot along its front. It was the kind of device that seemed ancient. "I don't know if it will be much help to you," said Mr. Flux, "but a camera like this is special. It will capture the best time of your life. Doesn't that sound wonderful?"
GILESNot wanting to embarrass Mr. Flux when the gift was an obvious piece of junk, Otto accepted the offer and grabbed the camera. "Thank you, we'll put it to good use." "Would you honor me by taking a picture?" "Of you?" Otto asked. Mr. Flux twisted away. "No, of the city, maybe. The view is spectacular." Otto shrugged and raised the camera's viewfinder to eye level. With his index finger, he found the shutter release. "Yes," Mr. Flux said, joyful, "just like that."
GILESOtto pressed the button. There was a flash in the viewfinder, a blinding white light visible for a second, then a motorized whir from inside the camera. A stiff plastic square, white border, black center unspooled from the slit along the camera's front. Sheed pulled the film paper free, and already, the black center lightened with familiar images of landmarks brightening into view. "That photo," Mr. Flux said, "will be an eternal keepsake of the day. Would you two like a similar photo of yourselves?"
GILESSheed stared at the photo in his hand and saw no reason to object. Otto gave the camera to Mr. Flux. "Excellent," he said. "Squeeze in tight. I want to get all of you." Mr. Flux raised the camera. "On three, one, two -- another flash, not from the camera, but from the sky. A blinding electric blue hole ripped the very air next to Mr. Flux, and a man ejected from it feet first, as if from the end of a steep water slide. He kicked Mr. Flux, knocking the camera free.
GILESThe stranger scrambled to his feet, whipping his head around, startled and confused. "Did it work? Is this the right day?" he said, his eyes resting on Otto, then Sheed. For a moment, his face flickered, the confusion replaced by a slight smile. Then he glanced sideways to the man he kicked over, Flux. Mr. Flux began to rouse, but the stranger leapt on him, pinning him, or trying to. The pair rolled in the grass and the way they grappled, it didn't seem like the stranger would be able to hold Mr. Flux very long. His dark goggles angled in the boys' direction, and he yelled, "Take that camera and run and whatever you do, don't take any more pictures."
NNAMDILamar Giles reading from the first in the series "The Last (sic) Day of Summer." It's from "The Legendary Alston Boys" series. Lamar Giles joins us, and you, too, can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you want to ask Lamar Giles? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to Kojo@wamu.org.
NNAMDIWell, we did get a call from Colin in Alexandria, who's not a kid, but wants to ask, on behalf of his kid, so to speak. My kid is super into reading, but what he's reading isn't great grammar. Is it better he read, no matter the quality of it, or should I have more, quote-unquote, "quality control"?
GILESI think it's important to let children read what they find enjoyable. And, I mean, it's not say you wouldn't find other books that you've thought were of better quality, but I think it's nice if they have the option to read what they want, in addition to the books you think they should read. I think it'll make it easier to get them to read things you want them to read if you give them the freedom to read the things they like.
NNAMDIYeah, I think the caller's a writer himself, and he thinks it's a big deal making sure his kid reads quality work. When is the next book in the Alston Boys series going to come out and what's it about?
GILESThe next book will be out next October, and it's called "The Last Chance for Logan County." And it's a book about Otto and Sheed's parents coming back to town, along with a sinister threat from a company called Goo. And so, they'll have to work on their relationship with their parents, who've been absent for the last two books, as well as do what they have to to save the town.
NNAMDICan't wait. Let's talk about some of your other mysteries. Your first was "Fake ID," one of the more popular books that you wrote, about a boy who was hiding in plain sight. You mentioned this earlier. What made you decide in the first place to write about a teenage boy who cannot reveal his true identity?
GILESWell, that book was inspired by a book about the actual Witness Protection Program. And, in addition to that, I'd been reading a lot of young adult books at the time and was really blown away by the sort of creativity I was seeing being done for that age group. And so, I always was a fan of mysteries and crime novels, and, at that time, I got inspired to take a crack at both a mystery and a young adult book, just because I was loving both and I wanted to see if I could pull that sort of thing off. And it ended up working out.
NNAMDIDid work out very well for you. Let's talk about "Spin," in which two female teenagers try to solve the mysterious murder of a DJ. And is it harder for you, as a male author, to write about female characters?
GILESAbsolutely. And the thing I always say is, when you see me write female characters and you feel like I've done a good job, it wasn't me doing a good job. It was all the women I'm surrounded with who are willing to read ahead of time and tell me when I get it wrong, which is why I'm such a strong advocate for whoever writes outside of their experiences or community, reaching out to people in that community to make sure they're doing it correctly.
NNAMDIThe murder DJ in "Spin" is known as DJ ParSec, and her fans are known as ParSec Nation. Can you explain why you chose those names?
GILESWell, I chose ParSec because I'm a big nerd, (laugh) and it comes from "Star Wars," when Han Solo said he did the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. And so that was a little bit of a "Star Wars" Easter egg.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of people who had to hide their identity, that's one of the things you didn't want your friends to know while you were in school, because you didn't want the reputation of being a nerd.
GILESThat’s absolutely true. I think today, it's a lot more accepted for someone to claim to be a nerd, particularly a black nerd. And I am...
NNAMDIA blerd. (laugh)
GILES...extremely happy -- exactly, a blerd. I'm extremely happy that young people can wear that badge without the harassment I went through. But I can tell you, back in like the 80's, it wasn't cool to walk around talking about Star Wars or Infinity Gauntlets or things of that nature. So, I did hide that for a long time. And, in ways, I regret it, because I spent a large part of school pretending to be someone I wasn't.
NNAMDIWell, I think it's finally time to talk about Beyonce's toes, (laugh) and how you stepped on them. Are you friends with her? Because most people don't get close enough to Beyonce to step on her toes.
GILESI am not friends with Beyonce, but I did meet her 22 years ago when she was a very new star with her original group, "Destiny's Child." And I got close enough to have a conversation, but I was very clumsy. She had on open-toed shoes, and I stepped on her toes. And I thought her bodyguard was going to rip me apart, but to this day, you can't tell me anything bad about Beyonce, because she waved them off. She told them it was cool, and to this day, I have this treasured picture of me and her.
NNAMDIHopefully you weren't wearing something like Timberlands at the time, (laugh) because that wouldn't have been too cool at all.
GILESIt wasn't a good look. It wasn't a good look.
NNAMDIPublished in January, "Not So Pure and Simple" is a bit different from your other books. Tell us about the teenage Del, the main character, and the interesting situation you put him in.
GILESDelbert Rainey, Jr. is a boy who accidentally joins a purity pledge at his church because a girl he likes is in it. He is also the only kid in church allowed to take sex ed at his high school. And so, he becomes the question and answer man for the church kids who want to know things about their bodies that they can't ask their parents or the clergy.
GILESAnd in the midst of being their answer man, he sort of has to examine if he's really the nice guy that he thinks he is and if he's doing these things for the right reasons.
NNAMDIWhy'd you decide to tell this story?
GILESWell, it started out as a school project, honestly. And I didn't know that I would ever finish it. But I graduated from my program in 2017, and it was a few months before the Me Too movement became a big thing in the public eye. And as I sat back and listened to the stories of the horrible things mostly women had experienced at the hands of men, I realized this book could be a conversation starter about toxic masculinity, misogyny and maybe do some work to help eradicate those things.
NNAMDIWe only have less than a minute left, but music is a very big part of "Spin" and other books you've written. And tell us who the heck is Mar Rip.
GILES(laugh) Oh, my goodness. Where'd you find that? Okay. So that was my, quote-unquote, "rap name." When I was 19 years old, my roommate in college, a gifted rapper who made several independent albums, insisted that his friends get on his first album. And so, we needed rap names. We needed to write verses. So, I did that and for one song that I hope no one ever finds, I was Mar Rip.
NNAMDIMar Rip. He is Lamar Giles. Lamar Giles, thank you so much for joining us today.
GILESHey, thank you for having me. This was wonderful.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with author Lamar Giles was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation with Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth about a new black political party was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, but it can also mean stress and conflict with family. And considering how divided we are politically, what will the holiday be like this year, whether you're together in person or virtually? And how can we navigate difficult conversations without causing lasting damage? That all starts at noon, tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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