Who can resist a picture book cover that displays an adorable panda? At first glance, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda written by Alicia Potter and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Borzoi Book published by Alfred A Knopf, 2012) appears to be a work of fiction. Upon closer examination, one quickly learns that Mrs. Harkness was an extraordinary woman who traveled to China with the intention of bringing a panda back to America.
Her daring travels are easily admired, especially since her excursion took place in the 1930s. After her husband’s unexpected death, Mrs. Harkness decided to take over his Asian expedition. Naysayers condemned her efforts. I could easily relate to the comment, “You’re out of your head.” Far too many people openly told me that I was “crazy” to consider being a middle aged international teacher in a Third World country. Anyone who seeks an adventure will be intrigued by Mrs. Harkness’s unusual story. I certainly was.
Alicia’s descriptions and Melissa’s illustrations enable the reader to feel part of the journey. Maps, lists of supplies, copies of newspaper headlines, photographs, and colorful illustrations enhance the telling of the story. At a time when few American women had notable roles outside their homes, Mrs. Harkness’ tale adds another layer to American life during the Depression. Simultaneously, readers will get a glimpse of Chinese culture and question whether animals should be held in captivity. Sadly, the panda bear, Su Lin, died a couple years after it was brought to the United States. A Chronology of Events, an Author’s Note and a selected biography provide additional information.
- Role of women in the 1930s
- Zoology and conservationists
- Animals living in the wild vs. in zoos
- Biographies in picture book format-Ruth Harkness
- Do biographies always tell the whole story?
- Creating personal timelines
- Are picture books an effective way to introduce biographies?
Melissa Sweet says
Thank you for this wonderful review of Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. It was a thrill to research this book and to read more about her. Mrs. Harkness was an intrepid traveler, to be sure!
Sandra Bornstein says
I would have to agree that Mrs. Harkness was an courageous woman who chose an unusual lifestyle for someone who lived in the first half of the 20th century.