Mrs. Harkness and the Panda


In 1934, Ruth Harkness had never seen a panda bear.  Not many people in the world had.

But soon the young Mrs. Harkness would inherit an expedition from her explorer husband: the hunt for a panda.  She knew that bringing back a panda would be hard. Impossible, even.  But she intended to try.

So she went to China, where she found a guide, built traps, gathered supplies, and had explorers' clothes made—unheard of for a woman in ...

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In 1934, Ruth Harkness had never seen a panda bear.  Not many people in the world had.

But soon the young Mrs. Harkness would inherit an expedition from her explorer husband: the hunt for a panda.  She knew that bringing back a panda would be hard. Impossible, even.  But she intended to try.

So she went to China, where she found a guide, built traps, gathered supplies, and had explorers' clothes made—unheard of for a woman in those days.  Then she set out up the Yangtze River and into the wilderness.  What she discovered would awe America: an adorable baby panda she named Su Lin, which means "a little bit of something very cute."

With breathtaking illustrations from Caldecott Honor artist Melissa Sweet, this little-known true story shares the tale of an adventurous woman who was bold and brave—and the unforgettable journey that helped shape American attitudes toward wildlife.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Potter (Fritz Danced the Fandango) and Sweet (Balloons over Broadway) tell the little-known story of American fashion designer Ruth Harkness, who intrepidly trekked through China in 1936 to bring the first live panda back to the U.S. Engaging mixed-media illustrations set a quiet, sophisticated tone, perhaps a nod to Harkness’s socialite status (not explicitly mentioned, but hinted at in vignettes showing Harkness among well-attired friends). Sweet’s inspired collages brim with a sense of time and place: patterned and textured torn-paper backgrounds serve as canvases for several scenes, while one spread shows a small steamer journeying over faded maps and old postcards. With help, Harkness returns with a baby panda she names Su Lin. A chronology reveals that Su Lin dies of pneumonia after less than a year and a half in captivity; Harkness also dies young, but not before she revisits China and brings home a second panda, a mate for Su Lin (both pandas turned out to be male). However, the tale concludes on a positive note, celebrating one woman’s steadfast and pioneering spirit. Ages 5–8. Agent: Teresa Kietlinski, Prospect Agency. Illustrator’s agent: Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Booklist, February 15, 2012:
“An engaging, graceful narrative…. Sweet’s Asian style watercolor landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful.”

Starred Review, School Library Journal, February 1, 2012:
“This little gem will be perfect for one-on-one sharing and for those second-grade biography assignments. It’s simply stunning.”

Children's Literature - Heidi Hauser Green
Here is a story to stir one's ambition. The year was 1934. Explorer William Harkness set out with one goal: to find a panda and bring it back to America. Not many people in the U.S. had seen a panda before. Sadly, William Harkness fell ill and died before he could complete his mission. Hearing the news, his wife Ruth was moved to carry on his work. It was an unexpected undertaking for an heiress from New York, but Ruth was particularly determined. After months of preparation, Ruth overcame the objections of friends, and made the arduous sea voyage to China. She hired a cook and a guide, and then took a trip into the mountains. There, she found a panda and brought it back to the U.S. where it "found a new home." Attentive readers will note that, as the timeline shows, the panda's home was not the U.S. for long; he died just over a year after arriving at a Chicago Zoo. They will also see that Ruth's life ended far too soon, at the age of 46. Still, Sweet's scrapbook-like illustrations are engaging, as is Ruth's story. The particular episode of Mrs. Harkness' life—and the panda's—which is featured in this book speaks of bravery and determination. Young readers will embrace that. Reviewer: Heidi Hauser Green
Kirkus Reviews
An unlikely American explorer brings the first panda to the West. When New York socialite Ruth Harkness set off in 1936 to fulfill her deceased husband's goal of finding and capturing a panda in China, her friends tried in vain to discourage her. Potter's frugal narrative focuses on Harkness' apparently fearless embrace of the adventure—including meeting her guide, the young explorer Quentin Young, outfitting her expedition and tailoring her husband's equipment (including boots) for her use and journeying up the Yangtze River. The expedition was fairly short, as Harkness found an unattended baby panda just a few weeks into the journey. Her return to the United States with the cuddly-looking Su Lin made the headlines for days. Sweet's rich colors and collages incorporating reproduced photos, maps and postcards add humor, dimension and nuance to the story. Delicate Chinese-watercolor–style illustrations depict the expedition's progress. Potter eliminates details that might have intrigued readers, including Young's Chinese-American connection and the fact that Su Lin may have been named for Young's sister-in-law, an explorer in her own right. But she deals diplomatically with Harkness' relationship with Young, saying only that Harkness bestowed her wedding band on him "for his fiancée," as she departed from China. A timeline reveals that Su Lin lived only 14 months after coming to live at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. Fascinating—and pandas, too. (author's note, bibliography) (Informational picture book. 4-10)
Candace Fleming
On the surface, Potter's rendition of Harkness's adventures appears matter-of-fact, like Harkness herself. Yet there is a bounce and a sparkle to the way she tells Harkness's tale, and a playfulness that occasionally slides into delicate sarcasm…Sweet's mixed-media images, which incorporate maps, handmade paper and delicate watercolor drawings, give the book the feel of a travel journal—a wonderful way of accompanying Harkness on her journey.
—The New York Times Book Review
School Library Journal
K-Gr 2—In 1934, the Western world had never seen a panda, so William Harkness set off from the United States in an effort to bring one back from China. He died during the expedition. His widow picked up on the cause and went to China herself, something unprecedented for a woman at that time. Once there, she paired up with a local guide; had the right clothing and shoes made; packed medicine, guns, and more into 22 pieces of luggage; and took the long, harsh journey into the country's interior. They eventually found an abandoned baby panda. She brought it back to America where it ended up at the Brookfield Zoo, just outside Chicago. That panda is now a mounted exhibit at the Field Museum. This is a gorgeous book. 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. It's simply stunning.—Ieva Bates, Ann Arbor District Library, MI
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375844485
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 3/13/2012
  • Pages: 40
  • Sales rank: 486,832
  • Age range: 5 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: AD610L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.60 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

ALICIA POTTER is also the author of Fritz Danced the Fandango, which won an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award. When not creating tales inspired by her travels and her hometown by the sea, Alicia works as a freelance journalist and children's book reviewer.

MELISSA SWEET is the Caldecott Honor artist of A River of Words by Jen Bryant, The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies, and The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, amongst many others. Her work has received numerous honors, and reviewers have described her unique mixed-media illustrations as "exuberant," "outstanding," and "a creative delight."

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