Stories from the Silk Road

Book Links Sept. 2006 (vol. 16, no. 1)

by Mary M. Erbach

Elementary school through middle school

The Silk Road is a term used to designate a group of trade routes that stretched from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean Sea. The rich resources of China, Tibet, India, Persia (Iran), Arabia (Saudi Arabia), Turkey, and other countries were exchanged for thousands of years along roads that crisscrossed through deserts, mountains, forests, and steppes. Brave explorers journeyed for years along these routes in search of new lands. Merchants traveled in caravans to trade their goods such as tea, porcelain, gun powder, pearls, camels, fruits, vegetables, and silk from the East, and gold, gems, perfumes, spices, and horses from the West. Over the centuries the Silk Road also made it possible for the exchange of religious beliefs, cultural ideas, stories, and inventions that connected people from different lands in profound and lasting ways.

This selection of books covers the topic of the Silk Road, people who traveled or lived in its regions, places found along the routes, and the folktales, myths, and legends that may have migrated along these roads through time.

The Silk Road

Gilchrist, Cherry. Stories from the Silk Road. Illus. by Nilesh Mistry. 1999. 80p. Barefoot, paper, $12.99 (1-84148-804-6).
Gr. 3–7. These seven stories are set in towns along the Silk Road route, from eastern Xi’an in China to western Samarkand, and are accompanied by Mistry’s brightly colored artwork. The retellings, from humorous to creepy, feature an assortment of kind and vengeful gods, spirits, animals, and human travelers.

Krebs, Laurie. We’re Riding on a Caravan: An Adventure on the Silk Road. Illus. by Helen Cann. 2005. 40p. Barefoot, $16.99 (1-84148-343-5).
Gr. 1–3. Krebs brings the concept of the Silk Road to life for younger readers with rhyming verses that tell about a year-long journey in China from eastern Xi’an to northern Kashgar. In reality, the trip was treacherous, but Cann’s colorful illustrations make the journey pleasant as readers and listeners are introduced to the geography of the route and the goods that were transported, including carpets from the Middle East, horses from Arabia, ivory from India, and silk from China.

Major, John S., and Betty J. Belanus. Caravan to America: Living Arts of the Silk Road. 2002. 144p. Cricket/Marcato, paper, $15.95 (0-8126-2677-X).
Gr. 5–8. Through the personal stories of eight Americans, the authors present an engaging account of how the peoples along the ancient roads linking Europe with Asia have enriched and continue to inform New World culture. The lively text is illustrated with photos, including pictures of the handwork of a Turkoman rug restorer in New York, a Tibetan artist-monk in Los Angeles, and more.

Wells, Don. The Silk Road. 2004. 32p. Weigl, $26 (1-59036-207-1); paper, $7.95 (1-59036-260-8).
Gr. 5–8. This title in the Great Journeys series features a magazine-type format with lots of crisp color photos and boxed screens breaking up text that details the history of the Silk Road. The time line and Web sites will be useful, and a glossary and a quiz are also included.

Explorers and Leaders

Bankston, John. The Life and Times of Alexander the Great. 2004. 48p. Mitchell Lane, $19.95 (1-58415-283-4).
Gr. 5–8. This book in the Biography from Ancient Civilizations series covers Alexander the Great’s life from his birth in 356 B.C.E. to his teenage years as a student of Aristotle, to his eventual rule over a kingdom that stretched across two continents. During Alexander’s time, merchants had transported silk from China as far as the Mediterranean Sea. A time line and chapter notes are included.

Chrisp, Peter. Alexander the Great. Illus. by Peter Dennis. 2000. 48p. DK, o.p.
Gr. 3–5. This encapsulation of ancient Persian history is a good resource to supplement a more traditional biography, such as Bankston’s (see above). Each double-page spread includes a paragraph of information along with diagrams and photographs of artifacts to further illustrate the battles that changed history, weapons and tools, art treasures, architecture, and jewelry.

Demi. Buddha. 1996. 44p. Holt, $21.95 (0-8050-4203-2).
Gr. 4–6. Demi, a Buddhist herself, uses traditional Chinese brushes, paints, inks, silk, and paper to tell the story of Siddhartha’s birth and life. Buddhism spread along the Silk Road from India to China, making profound changes in the way people lived. In Buddha Stories (Holt, 1997), Demi’s drawings in gold ink on indigo blue pages, indicative of a traditional Chinese sutra, accompany 10 favorite jakatas, or Buddha’s stories.

Demi. Marco Polo. 2008. 64p. Marshall Cavendish, $19.99 (0-7614-5433-0).
Gr. 4–6. Illustrated panels bordered in Chinese inks and gold overlay illustrate the story of Polo's life, including his remarkable journey from Italy to China and his time in the kingdom of the emperor Kublai Khan. A map showing Polo's route through Asia appends this detailed picture-book biography.

Demi. Muhammad. 2003. 48p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $19.95 (0-689-85264-9).
Gr. 4–7. This excellent biography reflects the literary and artistic traditions of the Islamic world. The readily understandable narrative tells the story of Muhammad’s life, and in keeping with Islamic artistic tradition, Demi’s paintings do not portray the face or body of the Prophet but instead depict his silhouette in gold.

Freedman, Russell. The Adventures of Marco Polo. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. 2006. 64p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $17.99 (0-439-52394-X).
Gr. 5–9. This beautifully produced biography of Marco Polo is marked by Ibatoulline’s full-page paintings as well as period illustrations. Freedman skillfully relates the facts behind Marco Polo’s incredible journey by camel caravan along the Silk Road to China from his home in Venice, Italy. For more information, see "Russell Freedman on Writing The Adventures of Marco Polo."

Herbert, Janis. Marco Polo for Kids. 2001. 144p. Chicago Review, paper, $16.95 (1-55652-377-7).
Gr. 4–8. Using the known facts of Marco Polo’s life as background, Herbert weaves together period pieces of art from museums as well as maps, photographs, sidebars with additional information, activities, and recipes. The resulting combination gives readers a remarkably complete picture of both the explorer and the time in which he lived.

McGowen, Tom. Alexander the Great. 2006. 160p. Enslow, $27.93 (0-7660-2560-8).
Gr. 5–8. In this volume from the Rulers of the Ancient World series, often-hazy details from ancient records are crafted into a manageable, interesting biography of the legendary Alexander the Great. An appended chronology, chapter notes, glossary, and brief listing of additional resources are included.

Rumford, James. Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta. 2001. 40p. Houghton, $16 (0-618-08366-9); paper, $5.95 (0-618-43233-7).
Gr. 3–5. The fourteenth-century Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta traveled for 29 years from Morocco to China, visiting many places along the Silk Road trade routes. He told his story to a Moroccan court secretary, who recorded his experiences in Arabic. Rumford’s adaptation weaves together biography, cultural elements, and calligraphy, and also includes a glossary, translations of the Arabic, and a map of the journey.

Scieszka, Jon. Marco? Polo! Illus. by Adam McCauley. October 2006. 80p. Viking, $14.99 (0-670-06104-2).
Gr. 2–4. The Time Warp Trio sets off on another unplanned adventure in history, this time to the Silk Road in the time of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Along the way they encounter bandits, camels, sandstorms, and a dangerous astrologer who has "The Book" that will take them home again.

Sís, Peter. Tibet: Through the Red Box. 1998. 64p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $25 (0-374-37552-6).
Gr. 4–up. When Sís opens a red lacquered box that has sat on his father’s table for decades, he finds a diary his father kept when he was lost in Tibet in the mid-1950s. This mix of biography and magic realism is an account of the dreams, stories, drawings, and writings of his father’s experiences and is illustrated with intricate paintings inspired by Tibetan Buddhist art.


Chin-Lee, Cynthia. A Is for Asia. Illus. by Yumi Heo. 1997. 32p. Orchard, $15.95 (0-531-30011-0); paper, $6.99 (0-531-07141-3).
K–Gr. 4. This alphabet book is a panoramic introduction to 26 different celebrations, customs, animals, foods, and inventions found throughout Asia. A paragraph for each letter describes the Hindu Holi festival in India, kite-flying in Korea, and yurts, the tentlike homes of the Mongolians. Heo’s brightly detailed oil paintings reflect the diversity of the continent’s cultures, customs, and languages.

Crane, Carol. D Is for Dancing Dragon: A China Alphabet. Illus. by Zong-Zhou Wang. 2006. 32p. Sleeping Bear, $17.95 (1-58536-273-5).
K–Gr. 3. Double-page spreads feature A-to- Z rhymes about Chinese culture and history, from acrobats to the Great Wall to the zodiac. Smaller type in sidebars offers additional information about each subject, and Wang’s lush oil paintings add to the appeal.

Macaulay, David. Mosque. 2003. 96p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $18 (0-618-24034-9).
Gr. 6–up. In his familiar combination of labeled architectural drawings, sketches showing artisans at work, and thorough descriptions, Macaulay depicts the construction of a fictional sixteenth-century mosque in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire. In his straightforward explanation of the mosque’s design, Macaulay offers an unusual perspective into Islamic society.

Minnis, Ivan. You Are in Ancient China. 2005. 32p. Raintree, $19.25 (1-4109-0619-1); paper, $7.85 (1-4109-1011-3).
Gr. 3–6. This book in the You Are There! series offers basic information about the Han Dynasty (207 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), providing information about clothing and lifestyle, art, technology, entertainment, political life, and religion. Double-page-spread chapters feature large print and frequent, full-color illustrations, and a glossary and bibliography are included.

O’Connor, Jane. The Emperor’s Silent Army: Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China. 2002. 48p. Viking, $17.99 (0-670-03512-2).
Gr. 4–7. In the 1970s a 2,000-year-old archaeological site was uncovered near Xi’an, a main stop along the Silk Road, revealing thousands of terra-cotta soldiers and horses that had been placed in the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuang. O’Connor describes how hundreds of craftsmen created the warriors, and well-chosen photographs from various sources take readers up close to the incredible statues.

Stories, Folktales, and Legends

Chen, Debby. Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven. Illus. by Wenhai Ma. 2001. 36p. Pan Asian, $16.95 (1-57227-068-3).
Gr. 4–6. Beautifully rendered art illustrates this retelling of a well-known Chinese story, which is told here in English and Spanish. The Monkey King is crafty, sly, and full of self-importance. In this tale, the second in a series, he takes a powerful wand from the Dragon King and challenges Heaven and the Jade Emperor.

dePaola, Tomie. The Legend of the Persian Carpet. Illus. by Claire Ewart. 1993. 32p. Putnam, $15.99 (0-399-22415-7).
K–Gr. 3. Based on a legend about a Persian carpet, this folktale tells how compassionate weavers restore beauty to the palace after King Balash’s prized diamond is stolen by a stranger and shattered.

Johnson-Davies, Denys. Goha the Wise Fool. Illus. by Hag Hamdy and Hany. 2005. 40p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-24222-8).
K–Gr. 3. The exact origins of the wise but foolish trickster named Goha are disputed. Passed down orally for centuries in villages throughout the Middle East, these 15 Goha tales are accompanied by lively full-page fabric illustrations created by two tent-makers in Cairo. An afterword includes a photo of the artists at work and touches on the tentmakers’ history.

Kimmel, Eric A. The Three Princes. Illus. by Leonard Everett Fisher. 1994. 32p. Holiday, $17.95 (0-8234-1115-X); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1553-8).
Gr. 1–4. In this Middle Eastern tale, three princes part ways for a year to search for a treasure worthy enough to win the hand of a wise and beautiful princess. Dramatic lighting and changing perspectives mark Fisher’s colorful paintings, which feature appropriate costumes and landscapes for this area in which the Silk Road routes crossed.

Metternich, Hilary Roe. Mongolian Folktales. Illus. by Norovsambuugiin Baatartsog. 1996. 132p. Avery Press, $19.95 (0-937321-06-0).
Gr. 3–6. This selection of 25 stories from Mongolia was carefully translated and sheds light on a culture rich in history. Baatartsog is a contemporary Mongolian artist who illustrated these tales with intricate paper-cut artwork.

Young, Ed. I, Doko. 2004. 32p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-23625-2).
K–Gr. 3. A doko, a Nepalese basket designed to tote heavy loads, narrates Young’s folktale retelling about a wise revelation that a father learns from his young son. Baskets such as this doko may have been used to carry goods traded along the Silk Road.

Young , Ed. The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale. 1998. 32p. Harcourt, paper, $6 (0-15-205023-X).
K–Gr. 3. Young retells a Chinese folktale that has echoes in many cultures about a horse that is both lucky and unlucky. Horses have been traded along the Silk Road for centuries. Young’s striking collages feature a rural community in a sparse landscape in northern China.

Young, Ed. What about Me? 2002. 32p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-23624-4).
K–Gr. 3. This cumulative Sufi tale teaches the idea that we receive some of our most precious gifts when we give, and knowledge often comes when we least expect it. Young’s watercolor and collage art features characters in Middle Eastern dress set against a neutral background.

Series Connections

  • Great Cities of the World. World Almanac Library. Individual books, 48p., $30; paper, $11.95.
    Gr. 5–9. This series features information on both the history and modern-day life of cities around the world, with full-color photographs, excerpts from primary sources, time lines, and more. Books about cities relating to the Silk Road include Nicola Barber’s Istanbul and Beijing, Rob Bowden’s Jerusalem, and Nikki van der Gaag’s Baghdad.
  • Cultures of the World. 2d edition. Marshall Cavendish. Individual books, 128p., $37.07.
    Gr. 7–10. This fine series with extensive back matter features detailed, readable chapters that cover a culture’s history, geography, government, arts, economic conditions, ethnic mix, religion, festivals, and more. The design is attractive, featuring captioned photos on every spread. Books on areas related to the Silk Road are Patricia Levy’s Tibet, Guek-Cheng Pang’s Mongolia and Kazakhstan, David C. King’s Kyrgyzstan, Rafis Abazov’s Tajikistan, and Mary Lee Knowlton’s Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Magazine Connections

Calliope: Exploring World History has published several issues devoted to subjects relating to the Silk Road, including:

  • "The Tang Dynasty," November 2003, v.14, no.3
  • "The Silk Road," February 2002, v.12, no.6
  • "Buddhism," March/April 1995, v.5, no.4
  • "Great Explorers to the East," September/October 1990, v.1, no.1

Information on obtaining back issues can be found at

Mary M. Erbach is the assistant director of interpretive exhibitions and family programs at the Art Institute of Chicago.