“My grandmother saw the emperor cry the day he lost his golden dragon throne.”
Those 14 words alone appear on the opening page of Sherry Garland’s picture book, The Lotus Seed.
But the relatively simple picture book is so much more. Reading is more than just decoding words on a page. The meaning of these words is anything but clear. How could they possibly connect to today’s world?
The Lotus Seed is just one of the titles in a growing collection of books selected to help children and adults choose the Jesus way of peace. Central Plains Mennonite Conference encourages engagement with these books through its Shalom Readers program.
With the power to transport readers to circumstances and settings beyond their own, storylines can provoke empathy, inspire questions and stimulate dialogue in both secular and church settings.
The Peace and Social Concerns Committee of what was then Northern District Conference floated the idea of a “Shalom Reader’s Club” in 1990. There was “hope that through the reading of these books, questions will be raised about national events and world history which will promote a discussion about our faith and its practice.”
But the program’s original inspiration came from David Hiebert of Allegheny Mennonite Conference. His 1988 publication, The Most Wanted Peace Books, as well as “The Christian Peace Elf Project,” provided a pattern for launching Shalom Readers.
The committee that brought the program to life was clear that it did not necessarily endorse the practices or beliefs of characters represented in each of the stories. Rather, the books were opportunities to gain insights and engage in discussions about issues of justice.
Since its origin more than 30 years ago, the club label has been abandoned, new titles added and — while initially planned for children age 4 through eighth grade — an adult version of Shalom Readers emerged recently. The collection is now overseen by Central Plains’ Christian Formation Committee. More than 300 picture books comprise the children’s titles, while 60 books are recommended for adults. Annotated book lists, along with other details, can be found at centralplainsmc.org.
Children are encouraged to experience stories. They keep track of the books they’ve read and respond to two of the books with a creative project. Once seven books have been read and two projects completed, the reader can request a new book from the list, purchased with conference funding.
An adult version was put into motion by Amanda Bleichty, conference minister for Christian formation. In addition to reading from the adult list, adults have the option of reading up to three books from the younger list to children. After seven books have been read and the reader has engaged deeply with at least three of the seven, a request can be made for a free book to be sent to a church library or person of the reader’s choice. This practice continues spreading the message of shalom.
The Central Plains Conference office in Freeman, S.D., owns the complete collection of Shalom titles for children, available for checkout to congregations. Churches are also encouraged to build their own collections by purchasing some titles for their library.
Because the messaging of most of the list’s books is not directly correlated with Scripture, they can serve as tools for discussions about peaceful practices in secular school settings.
Older readers should not overlook even the most basic picture books, as they often generate deep discussions across a broad age range.
The grandmother in The Lotus Seed did, indeed, cry the day the emperor abdicated. A bloody war followed. The author’s words about war and its painful impact are deceptively simple. Like many of the books in the Shalom collection, the subject matter invites reflection and discussion.
Reading helps us ponder peaceful responses to challenging situations. Reading empowers us to cultivate the gift of shalom.
As a reading specialist and educator, Carol J. Eisenbeis engages her middle school students with Shalom Readers texts in public school settings, as well as with her four children during their growing up years. She and her husband Chris are members of Salem Mennonite (South) Church of rural Freeman, S.D.
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