Today's featured reader is Allison Punch. Allison is the Events Manager at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA and the reader behind @allisonreadsdc. In addition to her bookish job and extracurriculars, Allison's day job is in philanthropy at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. She lives with her girlfriend in Washington, D.C. Currently, Allison is planning the first ever Emerging Writers Festival, a bookish celebration dedicated to bringing new voices onto the page and into the world. This festival is happening this weekend at Old Town Books. If you're in the D.C. metro area, click here to purchase tickets and book bundles.
I've been following Allison on Instagram for about a year now and she is one of the few readers whose taste I trust implicitly. I know that when Allison recommends a book, I'll not only love it, but it will be a truly essential read for me. She introduced me to such incredible books as Like a Mother, Juliet Takes a Breath, and White Fragility, and she shares my adoration of Jesmyn Ward.
Allison is also one of the most generous people I know. She's currently using her birthday as an opportunity to raise awareness for and provide books to two amazing organizations: Free Minds Book Club and LBGT Books to Prisoners. If you donate a book to either of these causes before August 21, 2019, Allison will enter you in a drawing to win copies of Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and some other bookish goodies. Check out @allisonreadsdc on Instagram for more details or visit the links at the bottom of this post to donate books directly to Allison's causes.
Because I so admire Allison's taste and spirit, I was beyond thrilled she agreed to answer some of my questions about how she became the reader she is today. I've already added one of her favorites to my curriculum and I know there will be more! I hope you find her thoughts as insightful and helpful as I do.
Tell us about your current reading life. What types of books do you enjoy and where do you have conversations about books?
I read daily by commuting on the metro, and also travel a fair amount for my day job so I get a lot of reading done on planes. The number of books I read a year has massively increased in the past five years since I graduated college in 2014. I read 95 in 2018 and it was the highest since I began counting. I expect it to remain around 90 this year, but I’m also trying to remind myself it’s about quality - not quantity.
I love reading and read constantly. I’m a mood reader who juggles genre and “type” of book (books to escape/books to learn/books to enjoy beautiful language) in order to always be reading. My favorite genres to read are memoir, literary fiction, and social justice-oriented nonfiction - whether that’s essays, history or theory.
As far as how I discuss books, I’m very active in #bookstagram but pretty terrible at joining buddy reads or any formal group reads - unless it’s a book I was already planning to read. I’m in a monthly book club with female friends in DC that alternates fiction and nonfiction. I know what kinds of books my closest friends and colleagues like, so I tell them when I read a book I think they’d enjoy and we discuss together. I discuss books all the time with my sister and grandmother, and I read just about every book my girlfriend reads - or I’ll have her spoil it for me if I plan to never read it.
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?
I honestly don't know. I struggle with this question because I don’t have very strong memories of loving the books I read in school while growing up. I don’t remember many specific genres or books, only reading. I was not a Harry Potter reader -- I got stuck at book 4 because I am bored by sports and it started out with the Wizard World Cup, and I couldn’t get past it until I tried rereading the whole series the summer before I went to college.
I credit my love of reading a lot to my parents and my family. It was just expected of us that we were readers. I have strong memories of learning how to read while sitting outside with my sister, our Au Pair Sarah, and these massive Disney hardcover children’s books. We spent a lot of time in the library (shoutout to the now-closed Loving Branch of the AADL), and we also often went to the original Borders (RIP) after church on Sundays, where I tried to convince my parents to buy me a book. I had a lot of teachers in elementary school that nurtured my love of reading. I had a friend in middle school who read novels in verse and got me into those.
My parents helped me become a reader the same way they stopped me from becoming a picky eater - it was expected that I read books, just like it was expected that I eat whatever food was put in front of me. It was never that big of a fight to get me to do it.
How did you figure out your personal taste in books?
I think my taste as it developed now came from peers, reading about the publishing industry and new books coming out, and just falling in love with writers.
My reading taste also heavily influenced by my values and the things outside of reading I’m interested in. I traveled to East Africa several times in my teens and early twenties and got very interested in African and African diaspora lit. I’ve always cared a lot about feminism and reading women. I credit my taste to my high school English teacher, Sarah Andrew-Vaughan, because she first got me into things like short stories and poetry. I think I got into memoirs by just being allowed to browse the library shelves as a kid and pick up what was interesting; now, I know I love learning about other people and their lives, and pay attention to craft, language and subject matter.
Did you do your required reading in high school?
NO! I did not! It feels so good to finally admit that publicly… I can remember both finishing AND enjoying maybe one or two books I was assigned in my high school English classes from grades 10 - 12: Kindred and The Autobiography of Malcom X (which I don’t think I actually finished, but I know I loved it).
I’m pretty sure I read my assigned reading in 9th grade because I really liked my teacher and that year there were a ton of strange parallels between what we were reading and the difficult things I was going through in my home life with lots of family illness and tragedy.
Did you read outside of assigned reading in high school?
I read a lot of Jodi Picoult in high school and absolutely loved her books. My favorites were The Pact and Change of Heart - really depressing books! I think I learned about her through my mom. I can’t remember reading as much outside of school, but I’m sure it happened. I remember reading a memoir about a man whose son dove into a pool and became paralyzed and I found it so fascinating - that book really ignited my love of memoirs, but I don’t remember the title, only that a pool was on its cover!
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?
YES! Ms. Sarah Andrew-Vaughan in Ann Arbor, Michigan is an angel on earth. I actually just emailed her recently when Joy Harjo was named the Poet Laureate. When I was in 11th grade, Ms. Andrew assigned us a “favorite poet project.” I told her I didn’t know who my favorite poet was, and she told me that it was Joy Harjo. She was absolutely right on that - as she was right on most things.
She introduced me to short stories and she also was incredible about opening my eyes up to new books and letting me be interested in books I was interested in. I didn’t have to be reading classics, or stuffy white men, or anything - I just had to be reading.
What is one book you LOVED reading in high school?
I loved reading Kindred and I think that love is even more prevalent today since it’s one of the few books I both distinctly remember reading in high school, and have since reread.
I also loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, which I read in Ms. Andrew’s women’s literature course my senior year of high school. I loved it so much that I wrote my admissions essay on it that got me into University of Michigan. That book had a huge influence on me because it’s about a girl dating a much older boy who is navigating her budding feminism with also being in love with a boy, in a very patriarchal boarding school. I read it as an emerging feminist in my first relationship with a boy - who was also older than me. It helped me call him out on all his bullshit.
(p.s., I like to think that Frankie, like me, comes out towards the end of college.)
What is one book you HATED reading in high school?
Everything, basically… Lord of the Flies?? Gulliver’s Travels. Red Badge of Courage.
I used to think I hated being told what to read and that’s why I could never get through these sorts of books, but now I’m realizing they all have one thing in common - and that thing is noticeably absent from my reading life now: white male authors. Sorry not sorry.
What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now? In your opinion, why is this book important for teenagers to read?
I feel like it is so cheesy to say The Hate U Give but I really think that for me, as a white student growing up in a predominately white school, this book could have taught me a lot.
I also recently read Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, their YA debut that is forthcoming in September. It was amazing. The premise is this utopia world which is essentially a critique/call out of how we live our lives now with police violence and how complicated we make it for trans folks. But there is also really interesting messaging about honesty and truth telling in society. Plus the writing is really gorgeous.
I obviously think that teens don’t just have to read YA, but given that one of the most influential books I was assigned in high school was contemporary YA, I would like to know more of these books are getting into classrooms.
What is one additional piece of advice you would give teachers to help their students enjoy their reading more?
Let them read what they want, figure out their tastes, and push them accordingly. There is so much more diversity in books than in “the cannon.” Whatever they like to read, that’s what they should be reading - there are ways to grow as a reader within that genre or medium (particularly when it comes to reading underrepresented voices that don’t get as much publicity as their white, cis, straight counterparts), but no one should be shamed for reading what they enjoy as long as they’re reading.
What are you reading now?
I’m currently reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, an amazing series of essays written and anthologized by adrienne maree brown on how we can center pleasure as part of liberation, featuring such amazing Black feminists as Audre Lorde, Joan Morgan and more!
Books and authors mentioned in this post:
- Like a Mother by Angela Garbes
- Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
- Jesmyn Ward
- Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
- How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
- The Pact by Jodi Picoult
- Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
- Joy Harjo
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
- Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown
- Audrey Lorde
- Joan Morgan
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