Exploring the world

posted in: James Rumford | 16

Last month I read an author interview at one of my favourite book blogs, Saffron Tree. It was with an author/illustrator I had not previously heard of, James Rumford, but I was so excited by the sound of his work that I immediately tracked down what books of his I could. The first one to arrive through our library system was Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 and in a rather fortuitous way, this awe-inspiring book was just perfect to accompany our postcard swap activities.

At first glance, James Rumford’s inspiration for Traveling Man might not seem an obvious one for a picture book – this book is essentially a biography of Ibn Battuta, a deeply religious Muslim who lived in the 14th century. However, if you were to pass over this book in the library or book shop both your children and you would miss out on an exquisitely beautiful and dream-inspiring story that I think deserves to be read by anyone, young or old, who is interested in exploration, travelling and different cultures around the world.

Photo: Bachmont

Ibn Battuta spent almost 30 years travelling from his birthplace in Morocco to China and back, exploring parts of Russia, Persia and eastern Africa along the way. James Rumford tells of his adventures and journeys using rich, vivid and evocative language. For example, of Ibn Battuta’s childhood he writes:

On maps, he would trace his finger along scarlet roads to reach the vermilion stars that marked the great cities of the world. on hot afternoons, in an imaginary boat, he would cross cool, peacock-colored seas to the eastern edge of the earth and sail fearlessly into the Ocean of Ignorance.

Additionally, Battuta’s tale is peppered with pithy epithets about travelling, such as “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Rumford’s illustrations match his text perfectly in their boldness and powerful sense of place. Each double page spread is a mixture of illuminated manuscript (with lots of Arabic script in gold), map (with sentences from the story winding their way across the page as if following a meandering road), and tableau, showing images of Battuta in far flung locations on his journey.

To my shame, I think this is the first book I’ve read to M with a Muslim protagonist – it’s great to have a fantastic story with an amazing character who just happens to be Muslim (recommendations for more books like this would be much appreciated!) I would say that kids slightly older than mine would probably get the most out of this book as the language is quite demanding for a 5 year old, but M still really enjoyed it. Her favourite aspect of the book was the text weaving its way across the page as if on its own journey.

In the spirit of travelling the globe like Ibn battuta M, J and I marked out our our wall map the countries from where participants are sending postcards as part of the International Postcard Swap for Families. We made little flags using toothpicks and white label stickers (these were simply folded around the toothpicks).

Had I had more time and patience it had been my intention to help the girls draw the flags of participating countries on the bare flags, but instead we used the stickers in the Flags of the world sticker book by Chez Picthall. Although this was very convenient, and probably (I have to admit it!) made it more fun for the girls as they adore stickers, and drawing all the flags would perhaps have turned into something more like a chore, the stickers weren’t actually very sticky (a common problem I find with books like these). That said, the book is currently on offer on Amazon for £2.99 and at that price I do think it’s worth the money – you get 2 complete sets of the flags of the world, one slightly larger than the other, plus a poster of all the flags and some introductory information about each continent. Flags not associated with countries are also briefly mentioned.

Most importantly, the girls had lots of fun with the stickers, and M became very proud of her knowledge of flags across the world. Indeed, when our first postcard arrived last week, she was able to recognise the Canadian flag precisely because of the little flags we had created.

We stuck our flags on to the wall map in the right place using pieces of blue tack. It was really exciting to see the spread of participants and to think about all the postcards that are crossing the world spreading bit of joy and some book recommendations!

After completing our flag-bedecked map we created our postcards to send to our own swap partners. J finished off the cards she had already started by adding images from 3 of her favourite books – The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, the Frog books by Max Velthuijs (a Dutch author who has been widely translated), and the Dikkie Dik books by Jet Boeke (unfortunately only available in Dutch – they really deserve to be translated!) No! We didn’t cut up books but used a mixture of stickers and cut-up wrapping paper and old comics.

M signed the cards and then I added a postcard from me with images of our town on it and everything was put into envelopes with some of our favourite stamps on. Although the whole process was a lot of fun, J was particularly delighted to actually post them in the letter box!

Here’s some of the music we enjoyed whilst we worked our way across the globe:

  • Roam by The B-52s
  • Hard Travelin’ by Woody Guthrie
  • Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads
  • I’ve been everywhere by Johnny Cash

  • As for music from around the world specifically for children, if you don’t know about the record label Putumayo Kids you’ve a treat in store. They produce CDs of music from all over the globe and their compilations are generally excellent. A really great way to introduce your kids to world music 🙂

    Photo: ToastyKen

    Here are some other reference links and projects that could pair nicely with Traveling Man:

  • The historical map collection held by the Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas – an amazing resource, full of high quality images. This library is also very good at quickly putting up links on their front page to maps relevant to current affairs – so for example at the moment there is link to maps showing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

  • If you’re going travelling (whether long distance or even within your home town) Trippermap is a fun little application you can use to plot your journey via your photos on Flickr (and can be posted on your blog). The basic version is free. Here’s an example of it being used by a couple on a world tour, but I can also imagine ways to use it with my kids at home – uploading images M takes with a camera of our home town, and perhaps pairing it with the map we’ve already created.

  • Make your own three dimensional map – Teaching Ideas has an outline of how this could work, whilst here are some more detailed suggestions from ArtsEdge, The Kennedy Centre (in pdf format).

  • Here are some links to posts about their postcards from other families taking part in the swap – enjoy!

  • Postcards from Spain
  • Postcards from Switzerland
  • Postcards from India
  • UPDATE! Postcards from South Africa
  • UPDATE! More postcards from Spain

  • If you’d like to help me improve things for a future postcard swap, I’d be grateful if you could answer 4 quick questions about the swap (you do not need to have taken part in the swap to answer the questions): Click here for the postcard swap survey.

    What are your favourite pictures books about exploring the world? Where in the world would you like to explore if money, time and other commitments permitted?

    16 Responses

    1. sathish

      After the ST review, I have been trying get hold of James Rumford books. Thanks for your wonderful review too. I need a way to get them in Bangalore now.

    2. magg, red ted art

      Wow! What a fabulous post and what fabulous activities! Hope I am (still?!) like this when Red Ted and Pip Squeak are a little older! Fabulous. Can’t wait to get my hands on yet another great book recommendation (I have a shelf of books for “when Red Ted is older”… can’t help myself!)

      Thank you Zoe!


    3. magg, red ted art

      PS did you know when you insert links into your blog, you can “choose” to have the link open in a new page? that way, people dont “move away” from your blog/ what they are reading… x

    4. Tricia

      Laurie Krebs has written a number of books that describe travel. You’ll find titles like WE’RE SAILING DOWN THE NILE, WE’RE RIDING ON A CARAVAN (about the Silk Road), WE ALL WENT ON SAFARI (a counting book through Tanzania), WE’RE SAILING TO THE GALAPAGOS, and more. The illustrations are gorgeous and the texts simple (and usually rhyming) for young kids. Her newest books are about the Andes and the rainforest.

      I should mention that these are all Barefoot Books, a publisher dedicated to bringing the world to kids, so you might want to explore their web site.

      The second half of my thematic book list on maps also has some “global” travel books.

      I know there are more! I’ll stop back and let you know what I think of.

      I’m sorry we missed the postcard swap, but with the semester wrapping up here, I’ve been overwhelmed. Hopefully we’ll join you next time!


    5. Liz Lockhart

      We’ve loved taking part in the postcard swap. Our packages went off today. It’s inspired us too and we made hot air balloons today with twine and tissue!
      One of our favourite stories about travel is Meerkat Mail by Emily Gravett. It’s about a meerkat who is fed up of his noisy, large family and sets off on a ‘world tour’ to find some peace and quiet. It doesn’t quite work out how he planned, but I won’t spoil the story! The book works on so many levels my beginner reader loves the fantastic illustrations and attention to detail, my 8 year old wanted to go off and find more about the places he visits….

    6. Zoe

      Hi Liz,
      Your hot air balloons sound very exciting! We love Emily Gravett but haven’t actually read Meerkat Mail. I shall have to track it down – thanks for the tip.

    7. Zoe

      Hi Tricia,

      You always come up with such good suggestions! I hope some relaxing times are ahead of you once term is over.

    8. Zoe

      Oh Sathish, Four Feet, Two Sandals looks really interesting AND it’s in our library system so i’ve just reserved it – can’t wait to read it now 🙂

    9. Aimee

      What wonderful resources! My kids and I will get lots of enjoyment out of this. Thank you!!!

    10. Zoe

      Oh Aimee, thanks for your nice comment – it’s great to hear you got some inspiration from this post!

    11. Sheela

      Loved reading this post, Zoe, quite inspiring. Travel Around the World is a wonderful theme to explore with kids.

      Loved J’s postcards – simple and beautiful!

      Putumayo Music CDs are a favorite with us – especially the World Playground. And as Tricia noted, barefoot books are indeed interesting – our favorite is My Granny Went To Market – not just a counting book, but a great introduction to world geography, culture, and travel in general.

      This post is packed with goodness, thanks!

    12. Kodi's Mom

      Yes – we heart both Rumford and Putumayo CDs
      haven’t checked this book yet, sounds intriguing.
      thanks for leaving the link at ST.

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