Interview with Friends Journal’s Assistant Book Review Editor

Eileen Redden Interview


Please introduce yourself, and explain what your role is at Friends Journal, and how long you’ve been in that role.

I would describe myself as a wife, mother, retired educator, volunteer, teacher of lifelong learning, and avid reader who likes to travel. I’ve been volunteering for Friends Journal since 2008.

When I’m not doing Friends Journal stuff, I travel; I read; I volunteer. I have a list about a mile long of places I would like to go to. I don’t think I’m going to make it to all of them. In July I went to a program at Oxford in England through the Smithsonian. And we went to Germany recently because we have a former exchange student, whom we call our German son, who got married. So we went to and participated in the wedding basically as members of the family, which was really unbelievable. So we’ve done some interesting travel recently.

As the assistant book review editor, you manage the Young Friends Bookshelf column, which we publish twice a year in the May and December issues. How do you decide on the books that we review?

I kind of imagine the reader and try to figure out what they would like to have reviewed, what kinds of things they would find useful—assuming that they don’t spend a lot of time necessarily looking at what’s being published in children’s books and maybe are just looking for a present for a grandchild, or something they can use in First-day school, or whatever. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and I try to find books that are of interest to Quakers.

And I try to find things that are for different age groups, so that we don’t have just all picture books, or all young adult books. I try to make sure we hit different literary styles—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, all kinds of things. And then I consider what we’ve reviewed recently. So if we had a wonderful book on a particular topic six months ago, and another book comes out and it is equally wonderful, it may not get reviewed simply because there’s limited space.

Describe your process for matching books with reviewers.

I do read most of the books that get in the column—plus a lot of things that don’t get in the column. And first I decide whether I think a book has made the cut. Then I go to the next step, which is who’s going to review the book. We have 21 people who have agreed, at this moment, to review children’s books. But some of those people will only review picture books, or they’ll only review young adult books, or they’re only really interested in books on certain topics. So that narrows it down right there.

I try to match the reviewer with a book based on what I know about the people. And sometimes I feel like I really know them—even though some of them I’ve never met—from various emails that have gone back and forth over the years. And also I have a resume from almost everybody who’s come on board in the last few years. It tells me what they’ve done vocationally, what their interests are.

I also try to move it around a little bit because I have 21 reviewers. I obviously cannot put 21 reviews in any one column. There’s a lot of balancing going on, a lot of thinking about the person, thinking about their expertise, whether or not they’ve done an assignment recently, what kind of book it is, and so forth. I take all that into account as I’m assigning. But they are volunteers, and sometimes they’re just too busy at that particular moment to do a review.

Can you describe our reviewer base for young Friends books?

Our reviewer base right now is mostly, first of all, bicoastal. They’re either on the East Coast or the West Coast. So we could definitely use people who are Friends in the Midwest and in the South.

We could use men only because—maybe this is sexist on my part, but I assume that men, who were little boys at one time in their lives, may be qualified to judge a book for boys better than women might be, who never were little boys. And men also might have some interest in some topic, or have knowledge or expertise in subjects and topics that we are missing because we have very few men reviewers. It is better than it used to be. We are improving, but we do not have as many men as I would like to see.

And I’m always looking for people with varied backgrounds—because you never know when you may need someone who can read that language or knows something about that particular time period. We can’t know that in advance. So having a large pool of people available obviously helps, and also we need to have not only geographic diversity, but diversity in Quakerism—the size of the meeting, for example.

If you are a member of a very small meeting, and you’re used to having to make a lesson fit the 3-year-old and the 13-year-old—which is a challenge—because there are only five kids in the meeting, then you may have different experiences. And you might look at a book differently than someone who comes from a very large meeting, where they have a class for three-year-olds, and a class for teenagers, and so forth and so on.

And you may have noticed that in our column, there quite often are things in there about this could be used for a lesson on such and such. Because a lot of our reviewers are people who teach First-day school, and they’ve thought about that: how could I use this book?

Have you noticed any patterns and trends lately in the books that we’ve been reviewing for the Young Friends column?

One recent trend for us is reviewing bilingual books. But that is a big hang-up sometimes because I need to have someone who knows that particular language at that particular time. In the last column, we had an Arabic book and a Spanish one too, and I was glad to share those books.

But there’s a trend that’s even bigger, I think, which is wordless books, where you just have to look at the pictures and figure out what’s going on. It never tells you what’s going on. Those are wonderful books for one-to-one, and less possible to share with a group. You can imagine having 30 kids sitting around one picture book trying to look at the pictures and figure out what’s going on.

And of course, there’s also trends in books in a certain topic. Certain topics become very popular, and there’s a lot of copycat in publishing, like anything else. If there’s a bestselling book on something, then the next year or six months later, all the other publishers come out with a similar book. So you do see that. Environment is probably the easiest topic for me to find and the one where I have the most reviewers who have an interest in it. Simplicity is probably the hardest topic to find. It’s a Quakerly attribute, but it’s not one that’s widely shared in our society. And publishers don’t see a need to write books about simplicity usually.

In last year’s December column, there were a lot of nonfiction biography titles focused on real stories about one person. There was Ada’s Violin, The William Hoy Story, The Water Princess, The Artist and Me, Dorothea’s Eyes, and The Extraordinary Suzy Wright. What are your thoughts on these kinds of books?

They’re publishing a lot of those books now because, in the schools, that’s the new way of teaching history: read a book about somebody from this time period. I think these types of books are very valuable. They are a valuable way to talk about certain issues or about somebody who’s stood up for a certain thing. It’s a way to address maybe equality or simplicity or whatever by demonstrating somebody who had that quality or tried to have that quality.

Our Young Friends column covers a wide age range, from toddler board books to teen novels. How different is the publishing for those audiences?

I find it tougher to find books for the teens. I found that was true even when my children were teens because, as a parent, you realize that your teens have very fixed ideas as to what they will or will not read. So they’re only going to read science fiction, or they’re only going to read about vampires or whatever it is. So that’s a little tougher. They’re more complex books sometimes, and just harder to find ones that seem to fit what I’m looking for. But I do make a real attempt to include things for every age.

What are the most essential books for young Friends that Quaker meetings should have in their libraries?

Thinking back to my own children’s lives, and they’re in their 30s now, I remember when they were young, they quite often would be waiting for me to get through a committee meeting or finish helping wash dishes in the meetinghouse or whatever, and they would grab a book from the bookshelf and start flipping through it. So I think it’s really important to have a lot of children’s books available and accessible, so the kids can read them or pick them up in situations like that. And of course they’re important for using in religious education. But just while they’re waiting for a parent, they’re going to look through it.

But if you don’t have an unlimited budget and you have to make a choice as to what to buy, I think I’d probably always go with the picture books because the picture books can be adapted and used with more age groups, including even adults. You can do a worship sharing and use a children’s book to prompt thought on a certain subject. So that would be my generic recommendation—not a particular title, but a particular type of book that I would suggest.

Lastly, what book would recommend for someone new to Quakerism?

Well right now, I am reading The Quaker Reader by Jessamyn West, so that would be a good book for such a person. But I think a really easy thing for a person in that situation to do is to get a subscription to the Pendle Hill pamphlets, because then they would be getting every couple months a small, little dose of Quaker thought from a Quaker author. And instead of having to commit to a 300-page book, they’d be committing to a 32-page little pamphlet. And if they’d like to read more, they have an idea of who to read next. But if they don’t particularly enjoy that or whatever, in two months there will be another pamphlet, and maybe they’ll enjoy that one more.




Eileen Redden is a retired school counselor and teacher, and a member of Camden (Del.) Meeting. More recently she’s been attending a worship group at Cadbury Senior Living in Lewes, Del. She has served as the volunteer assistant book review editor of Friends Journal since 2008. To contact Eileen about becoming a reviewer, email This interview is an extended version of the one that appeared in the print magazine.

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