The Silk road was a series of 4000 miles (6,437 km) of trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea and gets its name from the Chinese silk trade carried out along its length beginning in the Han Dynasty around 206 BC.
In A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road by Bonnie Christensen, a little girl, Mei, wants to travel with her father along the Silk Road to trade. When he refuses, she asks him to carry a jade pebble with him as a gift for a child at the end of the road. Her father laughs and tells her that he doesn’t travel that far, but she insists that everything is possible. When her father gets to town, he tells his daughter’s story to a Buddhist monk traveling west. The monk agrees to take the pebble with him on his voyage and passes the jade pebble and his wooden flute to a sandalwood trader along with the message that it is a “gift for a child at the end of the road.” The sandalwood trader puts the flute and the pebble in a carved sandalwood box and passes the treasures along to a family of acrobats traveling to Baghdad. The little girl in the traveling family adds a small carved elephant as her contribution to the box. A thief is pressured to add a stick of cinnamon to the box, but has the box stolen by a pirate while traveling by boat to Italy. However, the pirate has a family and he brings the box home to his son in Torcello, Italy making Mei’s wish comes true; her pebble is “a gift for a child at the end of the road.”
The frontispiece of A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road has a map of the Silk Road at the time the story takes place (9th century) and identifies the portion of the route traveled by each character. The endpaper contains a modern map which was great for comparison purposes. We spent a lot of time talking about why names and boarders change and the different countries that were part of the Silk Road. We also talked about why it took an entire year for the jade pebble to travel to the end of the road. With modern planes and cars, the concept of walking or riding a horse for 4000 miles was a bit mind-boggling for my children.
We really enjoyed the connectedness in the book. Each traveler adds a gift to the box which ends up containing things representing the five senses, important to every traveler to truly experience their journey! The present that Mei’s father brings back for her when he returns from his trip originated in Italy at the other end of the Silk Road, so gifts actually went to a child on the East and West ends of the route.
Children have always enjoyed sending things to the “end of the road,” from bottles with notes dropped in the sea, to letter boxes and geocaching. Both of my boys received geocache travelers for Christmas and they’ve been officially launched, we’ll see if they make it to “the end of the road.” A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road was full of the what ifs and the adventures that an object could have as it takes a journey and made my children excited about both sending an object on a journey as well as planning their own travels.
It is still possible to travel along the Silk Road though parts of it are in countries that are currently unstable. Several travel agencies specialize in arranging travel along all or part of the road and given that you cross more than 9 countries and encounter about 20 different nationalities and ethnic groups if you travel the whole route, it makes sense to have assistance with the planning and visas. If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, there is currently an exhibition on the Silk Road at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.