Mrs. Harkness and the Panda / by Alicia Potter; illustrated by Melissa Sweet. 6/7/2013

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda / by Alicia Potter; illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

PRI, grades K-2, rating: 5+. Hardcover picture book.

After the death of her explorer husband in 1936, Ruth Harkness departs for China to complete his mission to bring the first live panda to America. People ridicule the notion of a woman embarking on such a dangerous trip, but the determined Mrs. Harkness travels to Shanghai, up the Yangtze River, and into the bamboo forests. With a guide, a cook, and 16 men hired to carry 22 pieces of luggage, Ruth Harkness presses on, unwavering in her commitment to fulfill her husband’s dream.

This fascinating and true story introduces a little-known but remarkable woman who achieves the near-impossible. There are hints of superstition in the narrative. In one scene, Mrs. Harkness takes a child’s wave as “a sign of good luck”. Later, weary and blistered, she “cursed the wet bamboo that soaked her”, but is finally rewarded with the discovery of a baby panda. After scattering her husband’s ashes in China, Mrs. Harkness returns to the United States with the panda she names Su Lin, who is placed in a zoo near Chicago.

The compelling details of Mrs. Harkness’s adventure are brought to life through Alicia Potter’s energetic storytelling and lively anecdotes that will engage young readers. Melissa Sweet’s delightful watercolor illustrations pair well with the use of speech bubbles, maps, old postcards and stamps, collage materials, recreated news clippings, and actual photographs. The end notes include a helpful timeline and selected bibliography, as well as an author’s note contrasting our knowledge of this beloved endangered animal with an earlier view of pandas as “mythical beasts, like unicorns”. The author describes the conservation work of the international World Wildlife Fund and addresses how taking a baby panda from the wilderness would be viewed very differently today, a timely discussion point for young readers.

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