March 12, 2012

A prized find for an unlikely explorer

By Alicia Potter, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
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With their distinct patched eyes and adorable, roly-poly bodies, it’s no wonder that pandas cause a frenzy at any zoo lucky enough to house them. But you might be surprised to learn that until 1936 very few people in the world had ever seen one of these shy, beloved animals. In Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, author Alicia Potter presents a daring and nearly forgotten story of one woman’s journey to find a panda and bring it to the United States.

Ruth Harkness was a New York socialite; Mr. Harkness was the true explorer. When her husband died in China while searching for a live panda, Mrs. Harkness decided, against her friends’ admonitions, to continue the expedition. After taking a ship to China, having her husband’s explorer clothes tailored to fit her, and taking on a young, dashing companion named Quentin Young, she was nearly ready. With 22 pieces of luggage and hired help along the way, she set off on the long, arduous adventure through rugged mountains.

Melissa Sweet’s mixed-media illustrations, created with watercolor, decorative papers, old postcards, block prints, calligraphy and real-life objects, lend a scrapbook feel to Harkness’ journey. The effect continues with her discovery of a baby panda, which she names Su Lin and holds in her arms as she returns to waiting reporters in the United States. Recreated newspaper clippings show the instant and widespread “Panda-monium!” The endearing story concludes with the placement of the panda at the Brookfield Zoo and an actual photograph of Harkness and Su Lin.

Although Harkness’ methods would probably be criticized these days, she’s credited for showing a pluckiness rarely seen today and drawing attention to the endangered panda’s survival. This snapshot of her thrilling find will secure the panda’s place as a favorite animal for youngsters everywhere.

Angela Leeper is director of the Curriculum Materials Center at the University of Richmond.

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Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

By Alicia Potter, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN 9780375844485

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