We at The Banner recently got a one-line email from a reader that simply asked, “How do you choose the books you review in your magazine?” It’s a good question, but the answer is quite involved. The answer also hinges on what type of book she is talking about, for we cover an array of different types of books.
Early on in my time as Mixed Media editor, a family member showed surprise when I told her that we don’t just focus on “Christian” media, even though we are a magazine serving a Christian denomination. Probably only half of the books and media we review are written from a Christian perspective. Within this category of Christian books, we review fiction, non-fiction and also some children’s books.
So many books, so little time, right? How do we narrow it down? One way I whittle down our list of books for review is having our fine roster of book reviewers pitch me with books they want to review. Usually I say yes, because they always have good reasons for wanting to spend time reading a certain book. They will usually send me links to these books so I can check them out myself. Reviewer pitches are probably the No. 1 way I find out about and choose books for review. Sometimes my editors will throw a book onto my radar, such as When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat, or Uncommon Ground by Tim Keller and John Inazu. In the case of the latter, my editors received a press release from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, and we all agreed the book would be perfect for our readers. In October’s print issue, I interviewed Rudy Carrasco, a contributor to the book and a former member of Madison Square CRC, and a review is planned for an upcoming issue.
Another way I choose books to be reviewed is by browsing through the publisher’s catalogs. Years ago, I wrote the catalogs for Baker, Revell and Zondervan, so I relish when enticing catalog copy lures me in and makes me want to either read it myself or assign a reviewer to it. One of my favorite books in this category is I Was Hungry by Jeremy K. Everett. I spotted this one while leafing through the Baker catalog and immediately wanted to read it. I have a longstanding relationship with the the publicist for Baker Academic/Brazos Press books, dating back to when I was a gal in my 20s writing back covers and catalog blurbs, and she was a teenage part-time mail girl who would pop in my office and tell me about her love life. This relationship has stood me in good stead, as Shelly now simply sends me books she thinks I would like. She doesn’t even wait for me to ask her to send them to me, and to date she has never been wrong. One such gem: The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation by AJ Sherrill. I am crazy about this book and can’t wait to share it with Banner readers.
As a books editor, relationships with publishers are key. My favorites to work with are Baker (especially their Brazos imprint), IVP, and Tyndale. Tyndale pitches me regularly on fiction and nonfiction, and more often than not, I go for it. The Solid Ground Coffee Shop by Carla Laureano is just one of many examples of Tyndale books we review.
We also review quite a few mainstream books, believing as we do that our Reformed faith teaches us that God calls “every square inch” his domain. We look for books (and other media) that offer a redemptive, restorative arc, and our reviews often reflect that worldview. Some examples of recent mainstream book reviews: Intimations by Zadie Smith, Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim (audiobook), and Voyage of Mercy by Steven Puleo.
Most of our children’s book reviews are for books published by mainstream publishers, although lately Zonderkidz, Waterbrook, Beaming Books, and others have stepped up to publish quality, compelling children’s books written from a Christian worldview.
A final note: Since the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black image-bearers, my already-keen desire to amplify the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) authors and illustrators has increased. So I was pleased and grateful to Penguin Random House for reaching out about the exquisite children’s book Dark Was the Night by Gary Golio. It tells the story of the blues artist Blind Willie Johnson, from the childhood event in which he lost his sight to his music being carried into space by Voyager 1. My wonderful children’s book reviewer, Sonya Vanderveen Feddema, (who also reviews books for grown ups) ended up reviewing it, and she received a splendid compliment from Golio himself: “Many thanks for a really lovely, concentrated review of the book. Willie Johnson would be very pleased!”
I like to say that every day at The Banner is a “banner day,” but it’s not every day that we get a compliment on our work from Blind Willie Johnson beyond the grave. So that day was an extra banner day, and as I continue in the privilege of choosing books to review for our readers, I can only hope for many more bookish, banner days!