Marco Polo sure got around in his time, way back in the 13th century! And what a great way to show our instant-access, Web-addicted kids just how incredible the Polo family’s adventures were – for any generation!
The latest in Chronicle Books‘ (that great indie San Francisco-based publisher that always has the best booths at those book fairs) “Explorer Series,” Marco Polo’s story begins with his family who were Italian merchants specializing in the trade of rare silks and spices. When Marco was still a young boy, his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo left for a buying trip to Cathay, now China, and didn’t return until Marco was 15.
War had delayed their return, but the Polo brothers had the chance to visit Kublai Khan, the legendary ruler of Cathay, who sent the brothers back with a request that the Catholic Pope send a hundred priests to teach his people about Christianity. Imagine if that request had actually succeeded … history may well need to be completely re-written.
But the Polo brothers, this time with a 17-year-old Marco, began their return to the Khan’s court with just two friars. Another war frightened the friars away, but the Polo men ventured on. From Jerusalem through Turkey, to Armenia to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and across the Silk Road, the Polo men took three years to reach the Khan’s magnificent vacation palace at Changde where they would work for the Khan for 17 years. Marco proved especially adept at different languages and the Khan sent him throughout his vast empire as his official representative.
When the Khan refused to release the Polo men to return home, they eventually escaped after escorting a Mongol princess to her betrothed in Persia. Their journey is not without peril, and they arrived in Venice in 1295 in tatters, although their rags had enough jewels sewn into the seams to make the family wealthy.
Three years later, as Marco sat in jail as a battle prisoner, he shared his many stories with fellow captives. People started writing down his tales, and copying them over and over again to share – Gutenberg wasn’t even born yet! – until Marco’s stories went viral, 13th-century style. Today, that book is called The Travels of Marco Polo, and was the world’s first travel guide!
The book is a gorgeous, engaging adventure story indeed, especially thanks to breathtaking pictures by Terrazzini (who also did the even more visually spectacular The Seeing Stick). And what about the animals that appear on the bottom of each page? The “Note to Parents and Teachers” at title’s beginning explains, “Kids will investigate why and how the explorers made their journeys and learn about animals they discovered along the way. They’ll find out how some animals affected the outcome of the journey: helping explorers find their way, causing key events to happen, or helping the explorers survive.” Indeed, what a clever way to show the symbiotic relationship between animals and humans – and, in many instances, a necessary reminder of our everlasting debt to all the horses, yaks, elephants, and other beasts we burdened throughout the centuries in the name of our own survival.
Readers: Children, Middle Grade