My Life in Four Books: Alisha White

1) What book was most important to you in high school? Why?

In tenth grade we read several books and stories from our anthology that really grabbed me, and I found I liked talking about them in class. The one that I would say was the most important was The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. It was the first book in an Arthurian legend series focusing on Merlin. I had always been fascinated by stories of magic and mythical creatures, but this was the first novel I read that contextualized a fantasy in actual history, providing details of Wales, Brittany, England, and Ireland in the fifth century. I loved the story so much that I checked out the second, third, and fourth books from the library. I think it took me all year to complete the series and led to the first time someone called me a nerd for reading for pleasure. After that I was hooked on fantasy and science fiction, reading authors like Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, and Margaret Weis.

2) What book was most important to you when you were an undergraduate English major? Why?

In my first literary methods course as an undergrad, I spent a semester in a liminal space of uncertainty, getting momentary glimpses of meaning that felt intangible, listening to the professor and my peers discuss ideas that were not quite fully formed, trying to formulate a full picture with a handful of puzzle pieces. Many of the texts we read became foundational texts for my understanding of how to do literary criticism, The Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, the script of Chinatown, but Beloved by Toni Morrison had the biggest impact on me. While I grew up reading books by authors of color and caring about issues of equality, civil rights, and diverse representation in literature, Toni Morrison’s novels were some of the first books I read that showed the intergenerational influence of trauma from racial and sexual violence. The brutal reality of the characters’ experiences horrified me, but the haunting lure of magical realism intrigued me. From Beloved, I went on to take a course called Poetry of the Blues focusing on African American literature and Critical Race Theory. Much of my current understandings of what it means to be antiracist grew from the seeds of Beloved, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye.

3) What book is most important to you now? Why?

My reading this year has been strange as I oscillate between feeling no motivation, finding the perfect book to hook me in, and then losing motivation again. Recent enjoyable books include Spellbreaker by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Iron Raven by Julie Kagawa, and Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater. But while entertaining and fun, none would be the most important to me. That position goes to Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Laura Freeman. This beautiful picture book biography of Kamala Harris describes her early life and important experiences in college, law school, and the Senate, which lead to her being elected Vice President. I bought this book for my nephews because I want them to grow up reading books about influential women of color written by women of color.  

4) What book have you reread the most often in your life?  Why?

I’m not really one to reread books for pleasure as there are so many new books on my to-be-read list. So, to pick the book I have reread the most often in my life, it would have to be Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. In elementary school, the poems were accessible, funny, and enjoyable. Some of my favorites include “Boa Constrictor” (I always loved snakes), “Peanut-Butter Sandwich” (PB&J, duh!), and “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” (with the perfect rhythm to read aloud). When I taught high school, I used poems from this book in my course introductions to get students thinking about their literacy histories and bridge early positive memories of reading with more complex texts of high school. Now, my copy is on a shelf in my home office. The cover is torn, the pages have water damage, but there is a note from my mom dated Christmas 1978.