The Marvels of the Road

Book Links: August/September (v.12, no.1)

by Robin Smith

Rumford, James.
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325–1354. 2001. 40p. Houghton, $16 (0-618-08366-9). Gr. 2–5.

There’s just something about a person who leaves on a trip and returns home 29 years later! Ibn Battuta’s life reads more like fiction than biography; his 75,000-mile journey touched most of the known fourteenth-century world, from Morocco to the Rock of Gibraltar to Beijing. On the way, he faced rebels and shipwrecks, illness and freezing weather. So, what does a Muslim pilgrim have to say to modern children? It turns out, quite a lot.

“In the days when the earth was flat and Jerusalem was the center of the world, there was a boy named Ibn Battuta.” Invoking the standard fairy tale tone from the beginning, Rumford tells a story familiar to children in the Arab world, but not to Americans. It is the story of pilgrim, storyteller, geographer, and scholar Ibn Battuta (1304–1368 or 69). Maps were a special interest of young Ibn Battuta. He would trace the vermilion lines and dream of places beyond his home in Morocco, “on the very edge of the earth, near the shores of the Ocean of Darkness.” As an adult, he became a scholar and decided to go to Mecca as a pilgrim. With graceful language and impeccable design, Rumford invites the reader into all the details of the journey. One can imagine the smiling camels with musical bells, Ibn Battuta’s feet on the roads of Jerusalem, deciding where to go next, the salty waters of the sea, the battles with rebels, and the palaces of Delhi.

The gentle pace of the words contrasts with the richness of the visual narrative that accompanies each page. In lesser hands, the sheer volume of detail might have overwhelmed the text. Instead, the book is an excellent read-aloud that invites the listener to pick up the book later and discover the details lying around the words. Are those rebels hiding behind the Arabic calligraphy? Is that really a man-eating tiger? Are those people toppling out of the boat and into the Sea of Ignorance?

Most pages are made up of framed illustrations and a separate framed text box. The framed illustrations are watercolor on top of pencil drawings. The reader’s eye moves to the space around the boxes, richly drawn with gouache, colored pencil, and ink. A white “road” of text connects the boxes and the pages, much like the roads on a map.

Rumford has been interested in mapmaking for a very long time. Like Ibn Battuta, maps were instrumental in leading Rumford on his path in life. When he was in high school, he saw an Arab map in a National Geographic magazine and became fascinated with maps and mapmaking. He learned Persian from an Iranian friend and later studied Persian in graduate school at Berkeley. He studied various types of calligraphy on his own until he served in the Peace Corps in Chad and Afghanistan, where he studied with a calligraphy teacher. Though Rumford’s journeys have probably not spanned the 75,000 miles that Ibn Battuta’s did, there are some obvious connections between the lives of these two intellectually curious men.

Discussion Questions

  • Ibn Battuta’s full name is eight words long. Find out the history of your full name. Why were you named that? If you are called by a nickname or a different name, why are you called that?
  • The opening line says, “In the days when the earth was flat . . . ” What does that mean? When did people start to believe that the earth was round?
  • Though Ibn Battuta left Morocco alone, he could not have continued the trip without the help of many strangers. Who helped him? Why did they assist a stranger?
  • How and why did Ibn Battuta become a storyteller? How do you find out about people from other places? What resources can you use? How do you know what the customs are in, say, Japan? How did the people in the fourteenth century find out about people from other places?
  • When Ibn Battuta returned home, things were different. His parents were no longer alive. Illness had swept the area. Imagine what your house and family would be like if you left for 30 years. What would change? Read Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle for further ideas.
  • Compare Ibn Battuta’s journey with the journeys of other pioneers and explorers you have studied. Think of the journeys of Lewis and Clark, pioneers in America, Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton, or Columbus. Think about the conditions of the trip, the reasons for the journey, whom they met, what they saw, and how the adventure ended.
  • Ibn Battuta starts as a pilgrim to Mecca. Where is Mecca? What is “the Black Stone of the Kaaba?” He calls Jerusalem “the center of the world” because he could go anywhere from there. What is the “center of the world” today? Where is the center of your world?


  • For older children: After reading one of the many intermediate and young adult books that have personal journeys as their themes, read
    Traveling Man. Compare Ibn Battuta’s journey with a fictional character’s journey. Here are a few suggestions: Brent Bishop in Paul Fleischman’s
    Whirligig (Holt, 1998), Ged in Ursula K. Le Guin’s
    A Wizard of Earthsea (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 1991), Billie Jo in Karen Hesse’s
    Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997), Scout in Harper Lee’s
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Lippincott, 1960), Tree-ear in Linda Sue Park’s
    A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), and Salamanca in Sharon Creech’s
    Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994).
  • Ibn Battuta makes comments about the journey all along the way. Look at each adage below and explain it in your own words.

    “Traveling––it makes you lonely, then gives you a friend.”

    “Traveling––it offers you a hundred roads to adventure, and gives your heart wings.”

    “Traveling––it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

    “Traveling––it offers you a hundred roads. How does a holy man know the one you’ll take?”

    “Traveling––it had captured my heart, and now my heart was calling me home.”

    “Traveling––it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.”

    “Traveling––all you do is take the first step.”

  • Compare Ibn Battuta’s journey with that of the other most famous traveler of the time, Marco Polo. Create a map showing both travelers’ trips.
  • Where have you journeyed in your life? Map your journeys. How many miles have you traveled? How big is your map? How detailed?
  • Arabic and Chinese calligraphy play an important role in Traveling Man. Research the art of calligraphy. What tools are used? How is the Arabic alphabet different from our alphabet? How is Chinese calligraphy different from Arab calligraphy? Is there someone in your community who can teach you a few rudimentary characters or letters?
  • The plague greeted Ibn Battuta upon his return. What current illnesses can be compared to the plague? Research the fourteenth-century plague in northern Africa.
  • Seventy-five thousand miles is a very great distance. Think of ways to imagine that number of miles. How far is it from New York City to Los Angeles? How many trips to New York City from Los Angeles would it take to equal 75,000 miles?
  • Do some research on one of the places visited by Ibn Battuta after referring to the map at the back of the book. Find out about modern life in one of the cities. These were major fourteenth-century towns and cities. Are they still as influential as they were then? Find photographs and create a postcard from one of the cities. Write a note home telling about life in that city and how things are different from your life at home.
  • Rumford uses watercolor paintings over pencil drawings for the framed illustrations. The landscapes are particularly stunning. Pick one scene from the story and draw your own illustration in pencil and paint the scene with watercolors.

Learn more about mapmaking. How are maps made today? How were they made in Ibn Battuta’s day?


Armstrong, Jennifer.
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance. 1998. 144p. Crown, $18 (0-517-80013-6).

Here is nonfiction at its best, in this wonderfully written, beautifully designed account of the now-famous Shackleton expedition.

Brown, Don.
Across a Dark and Wild Sea. 2002. 32p. Millbrook/Roaring Brook, $15.95 (0-7613-2415-1).

This striking picture book follows Columcille, a monk and scribe who lived in sixth-century Ireland, whose forbidden copying of a book of Psalms led to his eventual exile in Scotland, where he established a monastery and reportedly transcribed more than 300 books. A page with the uncial alphabet, hand lettering used in Columcille’s time, is included. Brown’s
Uncommon Traveler (Houghton, 2000) tells of another remarkable journey, that of Englishwoman Mary Kingsley in 1890s West Africa.

Burns, Khephra.
Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon. 2001. 56p. Harcourt, $18 (0-15-200375-4).

The Dillons’ rich paintings accompany this imagined tale of one of Mali’s most famous kings as he makes a coming-of-age journey. Set in the fourteenth century in a region Ibn Battuta traveled through, this story gives a sense of north Africa’s powerful history and Muslim heritage.

Coburn, Broughton.
Triumph on Everest: A Photobiography of Sir Edmund Hillary. 2000. 64p. National Geographic, $17.95 (0-7922-7114-9).

One of the great travelers of modern times, Hillary was the first to reach the summit of Everest. The book focuses on both the ascents and Hillary’s work on behalf of the Sherpa people.

Curlee, Lynn.
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 2002. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $17 (0-689-83182-X).

Curlee, an art historian, gives informative background on the seven wonders of the ancient world, including Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza and the Pharos at Alexandria, where Ibn Battuta traveled.

Dewey, Jennifer Owings.
Finding Your Way: The Art of Natural Navigation. Photos by Stephen Trimble. 2001. 64p. Millbrook, $23.90 (0-7613-0956-X).

These stories of finding the way back will resonate with any reader who has ever gotten lost. From the author’s own experiences in the Antarctic, in the desert, and on a mountain, to a story of a girl navigating a small boat in fog, to reflections on finding the way in cities around the world, this title makes an effective read-aloud.

Ganeri, Anita.
Exploration into India. 2001. 48p. Chelsea House, $17.95 (0-7910-6022-5).

This title from the Exploration Into series covers the history of India through the influences of its rulers, from the Persian Empire to British rule. A summary of Ibn Battuta’s journey is included, as well as a time line, maps, and a glossary.

Goodman, Joan Elizabeth.
A Long and Uncertain Journey: The 27,000-Mile Voyage of Vasco da Gama. 2001. 48p. Mikaya, $19.95 (0-9650493-7-X).

One hundred fifty years after Ibn Battuta’s journey, Vasco da Gama sailed from Europe around Africa to the Orient and back, a voyage that enabled Portugal to gain a foothold in the Muslim world and its desirable trade routes. This attractive, thoughtfully designed book includes a foldout map of da Gama’s route.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane.
Celebrating Ramadan. Photos by Lawrence Migdale. 2001. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1581-3).

This photo-essay of a Muslim family in America provides information on the five pillars of Islam, the life of Muhammad, the Islamic calendar, and the ritual of daily Muslim prayer. Also see the sidebars in Rukhsana Khan’s
Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Stories and Poems (Albert Whitman, 2002), which contain solid information on the history, rituals, and important figures of Islam.

Macdonald, Fiona.
Marco Polo: A Journey through China. 1998. 32p. Watts, $23 (0-531-14453-4); paper, $7.95 (0-531-15340-1).

Macdonald’s chronicle of Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century journey from Venice to China and back is supported with intriguing details about the various lands he visited. An appealing split-frame format allows for the inclusion of additional background information. Also see Macdonald’s
The World in the Time of Marco Polo (Chelsea House, 2001).

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs.
The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish. Illus. by Beth Krommes. 2001. 48p. Houghton, $15 (0-618-00341-X).

This is the story of the 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition and the boat called Fish that got stuck in the Arctic ice. Poetically told, with wonderful scratchboard illustrations, this is a tale of courage and survival, with a great deal of information about Iñupiaq culture.

Myers, Laurie.
Lewis and Clark and Me: A Dog’s Tale. Illus. by Michael Dooling. 2002. 64p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-6368-4).

This very accessible, lively account follows Lewis and Clark’s great journey from a dog’s point of view, with excellent oil paintings.

Oleksy, Walter.
Mapping the World. 2002. 64p. Watts, $24 (0-531-12029-5).

This history of cartography from the Mapping series covers mapmaking from the ancient world to modern times and includes a time line, glossary, list of additional sources, and an index. Also see Karen Romano Young’s
Small Worlds: Maps and Mapmaking (Scholastic, 2002).

Osborne, Mary Pope.
One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship. 1996. 96p. Knopf, $19.95 (0-679-83930-5).

Richly illustrated with photographs of children worshipping, this introduction to the six major world religions is a good starting point for readers who wish to understand the basic tenets of the different faiths.

Parker, Nancy Winslow.
Land Ho! Fifty Glorious Years in the Age of Exploration. 2001. 40p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-027759-9).

This overview introduces 12 European explorers who reached the New World, from Columbus to Cabrillo. Maps, labeled illustrations, and an appealing format all help shed light on the golden age of exploration. Also see Richard Platt’s
Explorers: Pioneers Who Broke New Boundaries (DK, 2001).

Sís, Peter.
A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. 1993; reissued 2001. 40p. Farrar, $17 (0-374-37075-3); Sunburst, paper, $6.95 (0-374-46725-0).

As the story goes, Czech folk hero Jan Welzl left Europe in the 1890s and made an incredible odyssey to the Arctic, where he survived by learning the ways of the Eskimos. His adventures inspired Sís’ fantastical story and illustrations. Also see Sís’ magical
Tibet: Through the Red Box (Farrar, 1998), about his father’s travels through Tibet in the 1950s.

Siy, Alexandra.
Footprints on the Moon. 2001. 32p. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (1-57091-408-7); paper, $7.95 (1-57091-409-5).

In this heavily illustrated book, Siy looks at our fascination with the moon, spotlighting Project Apollo. Many excellent, captioned photos provide portraits of the moon and those who have explored it.

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.