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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, written by Alicia Potter and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2012. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"Don't forget your husband died trying to find the panda!"
Mrs. Harkness didn't listen.
She knew her husband had died trying to find the panda.
And now she had an expedition to plan."

I knew nothing about Ruth Harkness. Obviously, I need to read MORE! Or, I just didn't do my panda research. In any case, having read this new picture book biography, I am today more informed than I was yesterday and that is always a good thing. It seems you can teach an 'old' dog new tricks.

William Harkness was an intrepid explorer who set himself the task of going to China to bring a panda back to the United States. The year was 1934 and the task was daunting; certainly too difficult for his wife to accompany him. He set off, and she stayed home in hopes of joining him at some point during his trip.

When William died while in China, Ruth took on his quest and, despite the odds and much advice to the contrary, she set about preparing for her own trip to find the elusive and shy creature. Her arrival in Hong Kong, and then Shanghai led her to friend of her husband's. He, too, felt that she was ill-equipped to follow through with her plan. She heard no arguments and was lucky enough to meet Quentin Young. He knew that it was possible. Their preparation was detailed and laborious:

"Then she and Quentin packed. And packed. And packed. They packed maps and sleeping bags, medicine and rope, wire and flea powder. They packed guns for protection. Mrs. Harkness even packed a bottle and dried milk, just in case the panda was a baby.  They packed twenty-two pieces of luggage!"

They sailed, then drove, rode and walked. There was no turning back. Their persistence paid off, but not without concern. They could not find the pandas, despite obvious signs that they were there. Where could they be? The rest is history.

As one would hope, with picture book biography, the author tells a fascinating tale of determination.
Mrs. Harkness set out to make her husband's dream come true, and she did it! Alicia Potter does an incredible job of making her readers care for this woman and the constrictions of the time in which she lived. Many told her not to go; but, she set out without taking their advice. I have great admiration for her.

Since reading and poring over the artwork for Balloons Over Broadway (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), I have read much about Melissa Sweet. I was deeply interested in the illustrations created to tell Tony Sarg's story. She continues with wondrous art that first places the reader right in the midst of early twentieth century New York, and then is the mountainous forests of China. Using both vertical and horizontal panels, cut paper collage, postcards, an archival photo, maps and Chinese script she brings rich meaning to the author's words.

In back matter, the author has added a time line, a selected bibliography and an author's note that may help to quell concern over the capture of an animal from the wild:

"But even today, many conservationists admire Harkness's contributions to zoology. In bringing Su Lin to America, Harkness introduced the world to a tubby, bamboo-chomping ambassador. After Su Lin, the race to kill pandas for sport eventually lost much of its appeal. Instead, people rooted for their survival."

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