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Looking for Marco Polo

Review

Looking for Marco Polo

written by Alan Armstrong, illustrated by Tim Jessell

In his award-winning debut novel, WHITTINGTON, Alan Armstrong told the historical story of London mayor Dick Whittington and his cat through the voice of one of that cat’s descendants. In LOOKING FOR MARCO POLO, Armstrong again integrates history, fantasy and fiction, this time in the more exotic and evocative setting of Venice.

Eleven-year-old Mark’s father is an anthropologist who loves adventure. While on an expedition to trace Marco Polo’s route through the Gobi Desert, he disappears suddenly. Mark and his mom, as well as the research institute sponsoring the mission, are pretty sure that he is just accompanying some nomadic herders in search of elusive water. But they’re not taking any chances, so they head to Venice --- where Mark’s dad’s journey began --- to try to get some answers.

While there, Mark has an asthma attack, which brings him in contact with his dad’s old friend, Dr. Hornaday. Doc Hornaday helps calm Mark’s breathing (and at least some of the fears about his dad) and, most importantly, introduces Mark to his gigantic Tibetan dog, Boss. When all the grownups are asleep, Mark discovers that Boss can talk…and that he’s the direct descendant of Marco Polo’s own enormous dog. Through a combination of storytelling, dreams and fantasy, Doc Hornaday and Boss help bring the stories of tricky, adventurous Marco Polo --- and the history of their beloved city of Venice --- to life.

Readers will enjoy exploring the alleys and canals of Venice with Mark and his new friends. Armstrong brings the fascinating city vividly to life and illustrates the changes that have befallen the city in the centuries between Marco Polo’s times and our own. Careful readers will also appreciate the parallels between Mark’s story and that of his historical predecessor, and they (like Mark himself) may even be inspired by history to take a journey, start an adventure, or just try something new.

Armstrong’s novel is meticulously researched as evidenced by his extensive author’s note, which clearly delineates the portions of Marco Polo’s story that can be gleaned from the adventurer’s own writings and other historical accounts and those that are pure imagination. For aspiring historians (or adventurers), Armstrong provides a comprehensive bibliography, and his author’s notes make specific suggestions about the best historical accounts for young people.

Although some readers may find the historical vignettes a bit too much like a history lesson dropped into a novel, most will be sufficiently intrigued by Mark’s unique situation to find themselves just as drawn into the tales of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Tim Jessell’s warm and, at times, humorous black-and-white drawings also portray both the historical anecdotes and contemporary Venice in charming detail. LOOKING FOR MARCO POLO is a winning blend of fact, fiction and fantasy that liberates the past from dusty old textbooks and makes it relevant for today’s young readers.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 8, 2011

Looking for Marco Polo
written by Alan Armstrong, illustrated by Tim Jessell

  • Publication Date: February 8, 2011
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • ISBN-10: 0375833226
  • ISBN-13: 9780375833229