When he was a kid, Lamar Giles couldn’t find people who looked like him in the books he was reading. His reaction? Extreme irritation.
Although he quickly chewed through books — sci-fi, fantasy and horror — he found himself questioning why the characters were all described so similarly.
“If I’m a black kid and I like this stuff, then how come there weren’t black people — beyond tokens and victims — in any of it?” he recalls wondering.
His questions were met with insulting responses such as, “blacks don’t like it” or “black people aren’t good at writing those sorts of things.”
“My question was, so how do I exist?” he says. “Turns out it wasn’t my thinking that was the problem.”
His upcoming book, “Not So Pure and Simple” is his first young adult contemporary novel, though not his first book. He’s also a two-time Edgar Award finalist for his young-adult mysteries. A Hopewell native who has spoken at the Richmond Public Library before, Giles comes to the downtown library this month for a conversation with Newbery Award-winning author Meg Medina.
The library’s young adult coordinator, Jennifer Deuell, says Giles is a draw because he has an open and approachable air, making for exceptional interaction with the audience.
“We love the interactive format of this type of program because it allows the authors to engage in dialogue that might not come about with a more traditional reading event,” she explains. “And this will be Meg’s first visit to the library since winning the Newbery award and we feel honored to have her.” The John Newbery Medal is a literary award given by the American Library Association for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Deuell cites Giles’ uncanny ability to take on the teen and ‘tween voice, making the narrative easily relatable to young readers.
“He also has a way of pulling readers in and capturing their interest until the very last page,” she says. “This is great for any reader, but especially our reluctant readers who need that momentum to finish the story.”
“Not So Pure and Simple” revolves around several timely themes such as toxic masculinity and the pressure to be sexually active at a young age, real issues for today’s teens. One way for them to gain perspective is from contemporary young-adult literature.
“My goal is always to entertain first and foremost because I want my readers to have a good time with my work,” Giles says. “I read for pleasure in my youth, and still do, so I want to be a writer my readers can go to for a consistent experience. And if they learn something in the process, well maybe that part was intentional, too.”
Events such as this one, bringing in award-winning authors, is central to the library’s mission of encouraging lifelong learning for Richmonders. Deuell says that not only do author visits bring literature to life, but they also spark conversation among readers. “Hopefully, this takes what can be an isolated act — reading — and transforms it into a shared learning experience.”
An avid reader since childhood, Giles is convinced that people can’t be authors if they aren’t reading. His taste varies widely and usually comes down to what he’s liked in nonfiction, memoir, children’s books, fantasy, horror, science fiction and comic books. “Usually, I have more than one book going at once,” he admits. “Something in paper format, an audio book, something I’m reading on my iPad and a comic book. Every week, it’ll be a different set.”
In 2014, Giles was one of 20 authors who co-founded a nonprofit called We Need Diverse Books. Inspired by the initial global momentum of the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks, the group set out to advocate for essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. It’s accomplished this with programs such as WNDB in the Classroom, which provides free books and author visits to schools all over the country. Another strategy is the Walter Grant, named after children’s author Walter Dean Myers, which helps amplify the voices of up-and-coming diverse creators.
Part of the goal of the library event is also to inspire community members to tap into their own talents and passions.
“Perhaps this means writing their own book, becoming a community advocate or sharing their love of reading with young readers,” Deuell says. “The ripple effect is endless.”
As for Giles, he advises aspiring writers that no matter how much writing they produce in a day, they need to read 10 times that much. “The reading is just as important as getting your own words on the page,” he says. “It’s how you learn to be great.”
Lamar Giles and Meg Medina in Conversation is held Jan. 25 from 2-3:30 p.m. at the Main Library, 101 E. Franklin St., rvalibrary.org.