Vocabulary.com concludes our summer reading series with an interview with author and editor Lamar Giles, whose first middle grade novel, The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, was published in April, 2019.
Giles is the author of several young adult novels, most recently Spin, a mystery that revolves around the death of a popular DJ. His other YA novels include Fake ID, Overturned, and Endangered, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. Giles is also the editor of Fresh Ink, a short story collection published by We Need Diverse Books, an organization that he co-founded.
In The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, cousins Otto and Sheed — also known as the Legendary Alstons — race to save their town when a strange man arrives and freezes time. This fantastical adventure is full of strange goings-on, puns, and wordplay. We've created curated vocabulary lists for the book to ensure your students don't miss a thing.
Vocabulary.com's Director of Curriculum Development, Amanda M. Leff, spoke with Lamar Giles about time travel, reading Stephen King in their formative years, and the books that influenced The Last Last-Day-of-Summer. Giles also discussed some upcoming projects that you'll definitely want to keep on your radar.
Amanda M. Leff: Your most recent book, The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, is a bit of a departure for you. You've written a number of YA mysteries and thrillers, but this is your first middle grade book. Your previous books tend to be mysterious and gritty, while The Last Last-Day-of-Summer is comical and zany. Can you talk a bit about what it was like to write for a middle grade audience rather than a YA audience, and also to write a book that's very different in genre and tone from your earlier work?
Lamar Giles: First of all, it was just a lot of fun. Because I've done the mystery stuff and people know me from that, I don't think people get that I can be funny, too. I started out my career as a horror writer, but I've always found the idea of mixing weird stuff with funny things appealing — especially for a middle grade audience, because the very first books I loved were those sorts of books. It's no secret that The Last Last-Day-of Summer was heavily inspired by The Phantom Tollbooth, which is just funny and weird and has a lot of wordplay and idioms — and all that's in The Last Last-Day of Summer. I also enjoyed the Roald Dahl books, particularly Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which has a little bit of a horror element to it when they're out in space and the elevator's being attacked. It's always been my intention to combine those things into something that younger kids could enjoy, and I'm just finally getting a chance to do it.
AML: In the novel, Otto is deeply invested in the idea of being one of the Legendary Alstons. He enjoys his fame, and he's fiercely competitive with his rivals, the Epic Ellisons. But by the end of the book, he's also forced to reckon with the potential costs of his pursuit of fame. As a writer with a public profile, what's your take on fame and its payoffs and pitfalls?
LG: It should never be at all costs. It's something that I’m super conscious of. I don't feel like I'm great at using social media to market myself and make myself a more popular writer. I use social media to have fun and livetweet things like Game of Thrones and interact with my friends. I would never want to sacrifice those interactions for the sake of, say, just being Mr. Marketer Guy, always about my book, to create a bigger profile. Part of that was in my head when I was writing Otto versus Sheed. I think Otto is the version of me if I were the type to pursue writerly fame at all costs, while Sheed is probably where I want to be — just more laid back. And if [fame] comes, it comes. Without spoiling what happens towards the end of the book, I wanted Otto to have a revelation that that stuff's really not that important: the important things are your family and your friends — and what do you need to do to preserve those?
AML: The plot hinges on a missed opportunity. We often think about missed opportunities in terms of fear of failure, but this missed opportunity is more about being afraid to excel, and in particular the way that excelling can draw attention to you or mark you as different. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to frame the missed opportunity in that way?
LG: It's something I'm very sensitive to from my own childhood. I went through a period of abandoning my writing and my reading because people in my neighborhood weren't so into it, and they were more vocal about it than I was about my desire to be a writer. I found it sort of embarrassing. I bought into this idea that if you're cool, you're not into books, you're not into comic books. I eventually realized that a) it’s not important to impress people who put down the things you like and b) the alternative to not following your goals is probably a miserable life where you're doing things you're unhappy with. That character and that idea of the missed opportunity is what I think my life could have been had I not found myself back on the course of being a writer. Part of that involved me finding books in my older teen years that actually represented me. I found Black writers who were writing books that showed me I could get into this industry and follow in their footsteps.
AML: Are there any books that were especially important in putting you back on that path to writing?
LG: There's a writer named Steven Barnes, who's a Black science fiction writer. He wrote a book called Blood Brothers back in the 90s that really appealed to me. His wife is Tananarive Due, who's a well-known speculative writer. She wrote a book called My Soul to Keep and another one called The Good House that really showed me that there was maybe a path for a young Black man who wanted to write sort of strange fiction. In terms of children's fiction, I finally discovered Walter Dean Myers, and his book Fallen Angels was a big one for me when I was 17, simply because the character in that book was the same age as me and was Black and was going off to war. I couldn't relate to the war part, but just seeing a young Black male in a tough situation really appealed to me when I hadn't seen a lot of young Black males in fiction.
AML: The Last Last-Day-of-Summer deals extensively with manipulations of time, so I can't resist a few time travel questions. If you could time travel, where would you go?
LG: My wife has asked me this question before, and I said the farthest back I'd go is probably the 1991 NBA finals — and the reason for that is that I'd get to see Michael Jordan. I think that was a year [the Chicago Bulls] beat the Lakers for the championship. But also, on a bit of a darker note, I wouldn't feel much safer going further back as a Black guy. I don't think there are a lot of super friendly places in the past where I could pop up, and I wouldn't necessarily want to mess up time in those situations. So, yeah, the 1991 NBA finals. That's about the earliest stop I'd make.
AML: The Last Last-Day-of-Summer suggests that it is definitely not a good idea to freeze time — but if you could freeze time, what moment would you freeze?
LG: Meeting my wife, because it was just a cool day with larger repercussions for my whole life.
AML: The jacket copy of the book says that you grew up in a town very similar to Fry, Virginia. I have to ask you to elaborate on that because, I confess, I've never been to a town quite like Fry, Virginia — I hope you had fewer banshees and murderous robots.
LG: Many of the landmarks and the general small-town vibe are very much like my hometown of Hopewell, Virginia. A lot of that makes it into the book, although exaggerated. I remember a lot of bike-riding adventures with my cousin when I was young, and weekends were spent at my grandma's house. We had a historic downtown area. We had some weird woods that we used to play in. We were right by a river, which would double for the Eternal Creek in the book. So those are the parallels between the way I grew up and the stuff Otto and Sheed deal with — though their town is infinitely more dangerous than mine was!
AML: You're one of the co-founders of We Need Diverse Books and you recently edited Fresh Ink, a We Need Diverse Books anthology. Can you talk a little bit about your work with that organization?
LG: We Need Diverse Books started as a hashtag. It came from a conversation that I was having with Ellen Oh, who is a spectacular writer in her own right. When we were growing up, we had a hard time finding books that represented us. It was her idea to create a hashtag to see how many people had similar stories to herself, me, our friend Meg Medina. And when that hashtag went out into the world, it started to trend immediately. Over the course of a month, we did something like one hundred and fifty million Internet impressions across the globe. It became evident that we needed to keep trying to put the publishing industry on notice. The organization started as a nonprofit after that, and we put together several programs that we hope will help change the face of publishing to make it more possible for diverse work to be written, acquired, published, and promoted across the world.
AML: Given that Spin was published in January and The Last Last-Day-of-Summer was published in April, I suspect the next thing on your to-do list is a much-needed vacation — but I wanted to ask about what's up next for you. Are there any projects on the horizon that readers should look out for?
LG: Two things. In the midst of Spin and The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, I did complete another novel, which is vastly different from both of them. It's a contemporary coming-of-age story. The title is Not So Pure and Simple. That book will be out next spring. I'm currently — as in right before we were talking — working on a sequel to The Last Last-Day-of-Summer.
AML: I hope the Epic Ellisons will get a little more face time. I really wanted to see more of them!
LG: You know, everybody wants more of the Ellisons — and I encourage everybody to speak up loudly because I'm trying to convince the publisher to let me spin them off into their own series. They do appear in the new book in a couple of different ways that are appropriate to what the book's about. I can't go into a lot of detail yet, but I'm hoping their appearances will be as fun as what you saw in the first book. I also have an Ellison-centric story in the next We Need Diverse Books anthology, which is called Hero Next Door. They have their own little short adventure in that anthology.
AML: What are some of your favorite or recommended summer reads?
LG: It by Stephen King is one of my picks, particularly the portion of the book that's told from the children's perspective. It takes place over the summer of '58. I often revisit that book. I'm also going to mention The Phantom Tollbooth again. I don't think there's really any season where you wouldn't enjoy that book. There are two other books that I really enjoyed and I've been wanting to revisit and I think it's a good time for them: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson and Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward.
AML: Those are all great picks. I read It when I was 14, and it was the most terrifying reading experience I've ever had. I had to lock the book in my closet at night.
LG: I read it when I was 11. It was horrible — but at the same time, I often come back to it. I credit it as the book that solidified my idea that I wanted to be a writer.
AML: If you got through that when you were 11, I'm not surprised that you started out as a horror writer! Let's move on to my last question: What are some of your favorite words?
LG: I picked three. My first one is versatility. I just like the idea of being able to do a lot of different things and doing them well. That word really appeals to me. Another word I like — I just like the sound of it and it feels positive and futuristic at the same time — is the word optimum. I really look for the optimum things, right at the optimum times. And my last word is one that you brought up a few minutes ago, and that I'm very much looking forward to, and it’s vacation. As you pointed out, it's been a very busy spring and so my wife and I have a vacation planned for August that I'm very excited about.
AML: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
If you haven't read the first two installments in Vocabulary.com's summer blog series, be sure to check out our interviews with Sandhya Menon and Kekla Magoon. And if you're looking for even more ideas for great summer reads, browse our complete list of recommendations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can read more about Lamar Giles and his work at lamargiles.com.
Photo credit: Adrienne Giles
Amanda M. Leff is the Director of Curriculum Development at Vocabulary.com and has been working in educational technology since 2013. She previously taught at Wellesley College and New York University. She has a PhD in medieval English literature and would be delighted to recite Chaucer from memory at your next dinner party. In her spare time, she reads books, reads about books, and devises increasingly Byzantine ways to organize her Goodreads shelves.Click here to read other articles by Amanda M. Leff