Potter, Alicia. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 40 pages. $16.99. ISBN 9780375844485.
A stunning book, great adventure story, and a panda?! What more could readers ask for! In 1934 Ruth Harkness, a fashion designer, wanted to accompany her husband on his expedition to bring back a live panda from China. The journey was deemed too challenging for her tender sensibilities, but when her husband died in China, Harkness decided to pursue his dream. Harkness was scoffed at initially, but she was determined. She set sail for China, found a local guide, and prepared for a strenuous trip into the wilderness. The text includes fascinating details about her trip, such as the twenty-two pieces of luggage she brought along, and the boots she wore for hiking that were cobbled down from an old pair of her husband’s. In the end, Harkness returns with the panda Su Lin and makes headlines. Bates (2012) said it perfectly, when describing Sweet’s remarkable illustrations: “The illustrations are a combination of small and large watercolor drawings, background collages using decorative Chinese papers, floral prints, maps, and Chinese lettering, as well as a few photographs. This little gem will be perfect for one-on-one sharing and for those second-grade biography assignments.”
This book could be presented from several angles. It’s a great example of a woman with a dream who had the tenacity to pursue it, despite the social expectations of her class and gender. It’s an interesting bit of history to consider: a time when China was wild and when pandas were truly exotic. The book could also be used to discuss the ethics of taking an animal out of its habitat and how conservation and ecology have changed our perceptions of acceptable practices. The book includes a timeline of events, author’s note, and selected bibliography.
The collage and illustrations are a stunning complement to this story. I enjoyed the rich and layered two-page spread that showed the map of China and Harkness’s route up the Yangtze river: reds and deep pinks form the landmass with a golden ribbon of river threading through; layers of Chinese printed matter are visible in places, through the paint, with additional collage and painted embellishments.
Biography, Gender Roles, Exploration, Adventure, Pandas, Animals
Manfish: The Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne is a picture book biography that is engaging through the text, story, and gorgeous illustrations by Eric Puybaret.