I've been back in school for almost a month now, but for the rest of the world not on the academic calendar, it's these first days with crisp fall air that provide all of those back-to-school vibes. As readers, that start-of-school air gives us nostalgia for the reading of our youth and our first bookish loves. Enter Alli Hoff-Kosik.
Alli is a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. Since leaving her job in book publishing in September 2016 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, her work has been published in outlets including Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple, HelloGiggles, Refinery29, The Kitchn, and more. Alli works closely with several brands and businesses on managing their blog and web content, and partners with first-time authors on developing their manuscripts. She has a few book projects of her own in the works and is the producer and host of the nostalgic, book-focused, feminist-y podcast, The SSR Podcast. When she's not writing or reading, she's working out, watching embarrassing TV, or hanging out with her golden retriever, Irv.
Alli's been offering guests and listeners the chance to both revel in and critique their favorite childhood reads for a little over a year now. In each episode, Alli and her guest read or reread a literary throwback and discuss what they loved and what they might have missed the first time around. I've listened to every single episode of The SSR Podcast (two of my favorites are this Babysitters Club Super Special episode and this one on Tuck Everlasting). Not only does Alli encourage thoughtful discussion, she also has some of the most contagious bookish enthusiasm of anyone I've had the pleasure to (virtually) meet. I thought I knew pretty much everything about Alli's early reading life from being a podcast listener and blog reader, but I learned so much more about her eclectic reading taste by getting the chance to interview her myself. I hope you enjoy getting to know Alli's reading taste as much as I have!
Tell us about your current reading life. What types of books do you enjoy and where do you have conversations about books?
My reading life these days is CRAZY! On my podcast, my guests and I chat about "throwback titles" — books from our middle or high school days that are due for a revisit and deep-dive. New episodes of the podcast come out every week and I generally have a recording scheduled every week, too, so I'm almost always reading a YA or middle grade book in preparation (somehow, I didn't think of this when I came up with the idea for the pod!). When I first launched the show, it felt like I was spending so much time with SSR reading that I wasn't making any progress on the long list of books that I just want to read for myself, so I've been making a real effort to multitask with books now. It can require a little extra planing and forethought, but it's worth it if it means making progress on my TBR and ensuring that reading stays fun! I'm on track to read 80 books this year, which was my goal! My favorite genre is contemporary fiction, though I've been loving memoir and non-fiction written by journalists lately, too. I love anything that's super character-driven. I belong to a book club with some of my best friends, but bookstagram has become a great way to fuel my love of book talk between meetings. Plus, I do a lot of book talking with guests on my podcast!
As a teacher, I’m always curious about how people fell in love with reading. For you, was it in the classroom, or outside it?
It's hard for me to remember a time when books weren't a part of my life. My parents always encouraged my love of books, and my grandmother was also a big influence. She was the most well-read person I've ever met! I have so many memories of visiting bookstores with her and spending long summer days at her house, both of us sitting out by her pool with our respective reads. She didn't believe in buying me toys as gifts, but she would get me as many books as I wanted! Both of my parents worked full-time and I spent a lot of time commuting to preschool when I was really little. I'm lucky enough to not get carsick when I read on the go, and I always had a book with me in the backseat. Sometimes, I'd follow along with an audiobook my mom had gotten from the library. Because of all of this, I was already a good reader when I started school.
How did you figure out your personal taste in books?
As a kid, I more or less defined myself by my love for books, and I pretty much read everything I could get my hands on. Back then, I read genres that I would never consider now! At some point along the way, I guess I figured out what I actually enjoyed reading versus what I was reading because it was available. Most of my close friends in elementary school were also big readers, so I'm sure we influenced each other's personal tastes. And because my parents and grandparents encouraged my love of reading by taking me to the bookstore often, I think I learned at a young age what sections of the store most appealed to me!
Did you do your required reading in high school? Did you read outside of your classwork?
For the most part, I did! What can I say... I'm a rule follower! I think there were a few summer reading assignments that I skipped because there were other things I wanted to read when I was on vacation with my family, but I usually put in a good effort, at least. I definitely didn't read as much for pleasure in high school as I did when I was in elementary and middle school — at least not during the school year — but I was always working slowly through a book. I remember loving Sloppy Firsts (and the rest of the Jessica Darling books) and Stargirl. I also started reading adult books in high school. I got totally addicted to Jodi Picoult one summer! I was also a big Harry Potter fan, and the later books in the series came out when I was a teenager, so I was always part of the race to finish those before my friends could spoil them for me.
Did you have a teacher in your life who helped you learn something new about yourself as a reader or appreciate books in a new way?
My second grade teacher was highly influential in my love of reading because she really introduced me to the writing process. Today, I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor, so that clearly stuck with me, but it proved important in other ways. I already knew that I loved to read by this point, but realizing how much I enjoyed writing stories gave me a new appreciation for books and inspired me to read even more. I became obsessed with authors! In my second grade classroom, we had writing workshop two times a week, and I guess it just got me thinking about words differently.
What is one book you LOVED reading in high school?
I loved devouring those final Harry Potter books because, well, they were the final Harry Potter books. I loved the Jessica Darling series because they were racy (scandalous!), and reading them made me feel like I was being communicated to as the adult that I wanted to be. The Pact was the first Jodi Picoult book that I ever read, and the intricate storytelling in it blew my mind. It's still my favorite of her (now long list of) books. Of the books that I was assigned in school, I most enjoyed The Scarlet Letter. It was so juicy and interesting to talk about!
What is one book you HATED reading in high school?
It was so painful for me to get through Animal Farm. At the time, all of the political implications and metaphors went right over my head, so it just seemed like a really weird book about kind of creepy pigs. When we covered Animal Farm on the podcast last year, I was totally dreading it, but it was a little less of a drag this time around, since I actually understood the political context! I also hated Lord of the Flies. I didn't like the characters and I had a lot of trouble buying into the premise.
What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now?
I think it would be really interesting for older students to read The Phantom Tollbooth. I read it when I was in elementary school and absolutely loved it, but I didn't understand just how deep its messages are. I revisited The Phantom Tollbooth more recently for the podcast and was blown away by how special it is and how much older readers can take from it. It's an easier reading level, of course, but I bet it would be really cool to discuss it with high schoolers!
What is one additional piece of advice you would give teachers to help their students enjoy their reading more?
As soon as I got to high school, I feel like all of the opportunities I'd once had to do creative writing projects went out the window. I know that English teachers are under a lot of pressure to teach to certain tests and to cover certain content (especially in AP and honors classes), but I think my love of reading took a dip when I wasn't given the opportunity to express myself through stories. I know that creative writing isn't something that all students enjoy, but I think that an occasional casual writer's workshop — even for a few minutes at the beginning of class! — could get more kids excited about reading, as well.
What are you reading now?
I'm reading Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, and Baby-Sitters Club: Claudia's Super Sad Goodbye for an upcoming podcast recording.
Shop for books mentioned in this post:
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
- Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
- Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
- Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
- The Pact by Jodi Picoult
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
- Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
- The Baby-Sitters Club: Claudia's Super Sad Goodbye by Ann M. Martin
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