Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Favorite Picture Books: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

 by Alicia Potter, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

This is a relatively new book I learned about over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (which is a fabulous place to learn about new picture books and illustrators).

Mr. Harkness is an explorer who dies while he is on a quest in China in 1936 to find and bring home a panda bear, a creature so elusive many scientists believe, like unicorns, they do not exist. His wife, whom he married just a few weeks before his expedition, decides to honor his memory by taking on the quest herself. Despite discouragement from every side, Mrs. Harkness simply smiles and goes on with the expedition. She travels to China, into the depths of the interior, and succeeds! She brings home Su Lin, a baby panda, who finds a home in Chicago's Brookfield Zoo to much fanfare.

A note at the end of the book discusses the change in environmental attitudes that make us feel it was wrong of her to take the baby panda away from the wild and its mother, explaining that, in many ways, this act was the beginning of the idea that we should be helping animals survive in the wild rather than hunting them.

The book is interesting, exciting, and a wonderful reminder of what we can do when we have faith in ourselves and our vocation. The illustrations are a perfect accompaniment. Much of the art is a collage-style including papers the illustrators collected in China. One of my favorite pages shows Mrs. Harkness's journey to China with four postcards from time period of the Red Sea, Ceylon, Singapore, and China. There are even a few actual photographs of Ruth Harkness and Su Lin.

You could read this book when talking about the 1930s, women explorers, environmental issues, pandas, or China. Or you could just read it to enjoy the illustrations and an exciting story.

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