Monday, April 22, 2013

To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story

We've all heard the name before: "Timbuktu." It's usually bandied about when talking of far-flung locales ("All the way from here to Timbuktu!"), but how many of us actually know where it is? To Timbuktu, created by the duo of Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg, is a travel book that combines Scieszka's vignette-style narrative with Weinberg's black-and-white illustrations. Each page contains both elements, and it's an effective method for telling a story that revolves around other cultures to a teen audience. And you'll definitely know where Timbuktu is by the time you're finished.

Our story follows Casey and Steven from their latter years of college, studying abroad in Morocco until, well, Timbuktu. They lead charmed lives in the early pages, always seeming to jet across the country on a whim, and far more often than I can remember being able to afford as an undergraduate. Soon they graduate and Casey is granted the Fulbright – she plans to study Islam in Malian schools. But first, the pair heads to China to teach English, then explore Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam and Laos), stop by Paris, and eventually arrive in Mali. Their journey across the globe is documented well by Scieszka, who also consistently keeps the reader informed of how their relationship is going.

Scieszka has a charming writing voice, and she makes even unpleasant things like, um… travel-related digestive problems, for lack of a better term, “cute.” Weinberg’s drawings add a useful layer onto the text, playing out Scieszka’s scenes in simple, complementary illustrations. She also makes use of informational sections, like one titled “(AB)USING MANDARIN CHINESE” which includes information on pronunciation along with tips and tricks they used to get by in-country. Also of note are her descriptions of local food (particularly the Chinese), which had my mouth watering for a giant plate of pork dumplings. (I’m making some tomorrow.)

Where To Timbuktu misses is in its tendency to get caught up in the mundane. With such a sweeping premise (and title), I expected a deep dive into other cultures and exotic locales. Instead, those things serve as almost a backdrop for the creators’ relationship and day-to-day work. The duo arrives in Beijing and have a week to do whatever they want. As a travel reader, I’m expecting a full-scale initial assessment of the surrounding area. Instead, Scieszka mentions that they, “take the opportunity to check out Tianjin, a city nearby.” Can I hear about it?! No. The next sentence: “On the train ride back to Beijing, we realize we’re feeling anxious.” To Timbuktu deals with a lot of their internal feelings, and I understand that can make for a more interesting story, but it ends up stealing something from the travel narrative. You often feel a bit cheated as a reader.

However, I’d recommend To Timbuktu as good teen reading material. Scieszka and Weinberg are good people trying to do good work in places that need it, and that’s a voice I’ll always want students to hear. Plus, exposure to other cultures even through literature is crucial to how I plan to teach. The book contains casual swearing and reference to sex, but it’s nothing a high school reader hasn’t read before. In fact, they create some of the funnier moments in the book. Scieszka creates interesting characters out of herself and Weinberg, and they do a decent job developing a few of their foreign friends.

Willing readers will enjoy the conversational tone of the prose and visual learners will appreciate Weinberg’s contributions, which are simple yet charming and always bring something else to the scene. Viewed through the subject of social studies, the book brings valuable information on geography, national and local culture, and foreign linguistics to the reader. It’s a great text for increasing multicultural knowledge. In the end, I learned things from To Timbuktu; it took me somewhere I’d never been and got me interested in other cultures (and making their food), and that’s what’s important.

Book trailer, done in creative and charming fashion by Scieszka and Weinberg:


Clarice Howard said...

When I think of books with pictures, I automatically think children's book. However, I have come to realize a lot of pre-teen and YAL novels have a lot of pictures. I just read The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian and there are a lot of cartoonish drawing in the novel. They are pictures that seem to add to the story and help with the development of the characters. I think readers might even better understand characters and follow the story line better with these pictures. If the pictures for To Timbuktu are anything like the ones from the book trailer I think that students would really enjoy the book. I watched the book trailer before I read the actual blog post and I was very intrigued, and to be honest that is the only reason I actually read the whole post.

Leslie Shambo said...

I agree with you Zak, it seems a bit odd that the author would not include more cultural references in a book in which the characters explore a wide variety of countries, cities and cultures. Whenever I come across books that seem a bit vague with regard to these references, I always feel the author had to leave them out because he/she has never been to any of the places mentioned in the book. When you talked about the pork dumplings, I have to admit I thought that the was the "typical" food Americans think people eat in China. Imagine my surprise then, when I looked at her blog ( and discovered she stayed in Morocco with a host family! Go figure! I am at a loss as to why she would not have included more cultural references then.

By the way, it looks like she married the illustrator, according to a recent post on her blog!