Eden Ross Lipson’s office at The New York Times overflowed with books. Books crowded onto carts. Books rested atop chairs. Books sat in stacks on the floor. Books lay arranged on a credenza. Books waited on her desk.
As far as I was concerned, Eden was books. Certainly, as the children’s book editor at the Times for 20-plus years, she lived books. Eden died this week, and her death brought back many memories.
I wrote a dozen reviews for Eden. We met one Wednesday when I was working on the metro desk at The Times and she was looking for someone to write about New Year’s Eve 1999 for the in-house magazine, TimesTalk, which she edited. Another editor introduced us, we talked briefly, and she signed me up. She didn’t try to influence what I wrote. She simply wanted the feel of the newsroom as 2000 arrived. (I’d say the new millennium, but by Times style, the millennium didn’t begin until 2001.)
A couple of months later, Eden came to me again. She knew I had twin 3-year-old boys, and she asked whether I was interested in reviewing children’s books. She liked the feel of my writing, she said, and thought I’d have the right touch to review picture books. She invited me to her office and offered a handful of books to choose from.
That’s how it usually worked. I never knew how she chose the books she offered. She’d simply point to a stack and tell me to pick something that looked interesting, something that I would have something to say about, good or bad. Sometimes that was the latest book by Kevin Henkes or Margaret Mahy or the magnificent Lauren Child. Other times it was books by first-time authors or lesser-known artists. At other times, she’d drop by my desk with three or four books and ask for a single thematic review of all of them. I did that before Father’s Day one year, with a review of books about dads; another time, it was a review of classics that were being reissued.
I’d e-mail my reviews to her, and she respond with “perfect,” or “just right,” followed by “e.” She always signed her e-mail with a lowercase “e.” Just “e.” That’s all she ever needed. She changed little, never wanting to tread on the opinions of her reviewers. She wasn’t the reviewer, she said. I was.
In late 2002, when I reviewed Mark Teagues’ wonderful Dear Mrs. LaRue, I sent her a review in the form of a letter to the main character, a dog named Ike, telling her that I understood if the unusual form wouldn’t work.
“Let’s try it, she said, “and certainly if the powers that be get cranky, we can alter it slightly to make it more conventional.”
It ran the way I wrote it, perhaps the only letter to a dog ever to appear in The Times (or so I like to think).
It seemed strange for Eden to refer to the “powers that be.” To many of us, she was one of those powers, not just as the editor of children’s books, but as a person. In a remembrance, Julie Just described her as “a person of superhuman energies”; others called her “zealous,” and “vivid, positive, and enjoyable.” She was all of those things, as well as authoritative. Not in the stern sense, but in her manner and knowledge. She had worked in broadcast, and that experience showed in interviews and in the way she carried herself. You trusted her, immediately.
For all of her intellect and professional talent, though, I always thought of Eden as motherly. I don’t think she’d find that offensive. She’d probably laugh. She was about 20 years older than I, a foot and a half shorter, even with her dark hair done up. Her smile was inviting, her voice reassuring. She inspired confidence, just as any parent – just as any editor – should.
A few months after I left The Times in 2004, Eden asked me to do “a quick 800 words” on the picture book version of The People Could Fly, Virginia Hamilton’s folklore fantasy about winged Africans who break away from slavery. She wrote back, “You got it!”
Somehow that made me uneasy. I e-mailed her and said I was feeling paranoid about missing something.
I cold almost hear the laugh in her reply. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said. “Don’t be paranoid. Do you have the tape of Virginia and James Earl Jones reading the stories? I can hear it without closing my eyes. Gives me chills EVERY time. It was my kids’ absolute favorite.”
I realized then why Eden was so good at being a children’s book editor: She knew her books – all of those books that surrounded her in her office. She got them. She was those books.
I did “one last review” (her words) for Eden toward the end of 2005, her last year at The Times. It was for the Book Review’s section on the best-illustrated children’s books of the year. The book was Are You Going to Be Good?, written by Cari Best and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. It was, like most of the books I got from Eden, a wonderful blend of words and pictures. The author and the illustrator knew children; they understood children. Without that knowledge and understanding, no children’s book could ever succeed.
Of course, neither could a book editor.