Book Review: Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 February 7, 2015 06:00

By James Rumford, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2001, paperback, 40 pp. 

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Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354

Born in 14th century Morocco, Ibn Battuta embarked on a journey at the young age of 21 that took 29 years to complete and spanned more than three times the equatorial circumference of the Earth (more than 75,000 miles), besting the distance traveled by his near-contemporary Marco Polo. Author and illustrator James Rumford, himself a world traveler, captures Ibn Battuta’s incredible journey in this masterful children’s book for ages 9 to 12.

In the century before Christopher Columbus, Rumford writes, “the earth was still flat and Jerusalem was the center of the world.” Ibn Battuta was born on the very edge of this flat world, just off the “Coast of Darkness,” as it was known in Arabic at the time. His journey began as a simple pilgrimage to Mecca, where he hoped to continue his religious studies. As he left Tangier on his donkey, he kissed his mother and father goodbye, telling them, “I’ll be back.” During his stay in Alexandria, Egypt, a holy man tells him that his travels will take Battuta to the edge of the earth. Indeed, after kissing the Black Stone of the Kaaba, Battuta continues on to Iraq, Persia and far beyond, traveling by boat, camel, horse and on foot. Along the way he is wounded by an arrow, experiences both great wealth and poverty, is nearly eaten by a crocodile, meets fascinating people, and arrives in Cambaluc (Quanzhou), China during riots over the emperor’s assassination. At long last, he returns home to find that his parents have died. While he sheds tears, he also becomes a gifted and valued storyteller, inspiring a new generation of travelers who wish to follow in his footsteps.

The many threads of text in English and Arabic that meander above, behind and around the main narrative allow young readers to revisit this book many times after their first reading. Rumford’s rich watercolor illustrations and maps make it easy to explore the locations and customs of ancient cultures and get lost in the many convolutions of Battuta’s travels. Additionally, Traveling Man offers children a fantastic introduction to far-flung cities and points of interest that will help them build their geographical knowledge. And if this isn’t enough to spark a young person’s budding wanderlust, Rumford sprinkles insights common to many globetrotters—for instance, when Battuta discovers that one of the joys of traveling is that “it makes you lonely then gives you a friend.”