Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Pandas are so familiar to us today that it is hard to realize that in 1934 hardly anyone in the West had ever seen one. We wait in long queues to see them in zoos, watch them on live cams and the World Wildlife Federation has adopted its image as their symbol. The fascinating story of how “pandemonium” came to the west is told in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Random/Knopf 2012), a picture book that will capture children’s interest right from the start.
In 1934 William Harkness set off to China – planning to bring the first live Panda to the US. His wife, Ruth, longed to go with him, but in 1934 women were considered too delicate for such adventures. Then came the sad news. William had died in China. Ruth decided to carry on her husband’s dream despite the fact that she had absolutely no experience as an explorer or with wild animals and made her living as a dress designer! Her friends did their best to discourage her but clearly Ruth was strong and determined and in 1936 she set out on her journey. The obstacles were huge from the very nature of the shy elusive panda, to the difficult terrain but Mrs. Harkness was helped by a young Chinese man called Quentin Young and amazingly they succeeded. A baby panda called Su Lin was discovered in an old dead tree and brought in triumph back to the States – where Americans fell in love with the baby and with the entire adorable species.
This is a story that has MANY potholes for readers today. Wait – women were too delicate to be explorers? Wait – they just picked up a baby without looking for its mother? Wait – they just took it out of the country without really knowing how to keep it alive and healthy? Wait – Quentin Young was a dashing young man? Hmmm. Alicia Potter does an outstanding job of providing young readers with the background necessary to negotiate these potholes – the attitudes of the times – while acknowledging that today we think differently. Readers can see that times have changed, the world has learned a lot and Ruth Harkness played a pivotal role in changing the way the world thought of and treated animals.
Then there are Melissa Sweet’s absolutely fabulous illustrations! I LOVED how the illustrations were as integral to telling the story as the text. Sweet created beautiful watercolor paintings with an asian feel to them as well as employing her trademark collage techniques. Postcards, stamps and coins adorn the pages that have an old-fashioned picture album style. I should stop or Cindy won’t have anything left to talk about but I do want to say that I was lucky enough to get this lovely book signed by Melissa Sweet at ALA. I admire her work so much but as usual, I wasn’t able to say anything coherent at the time. Still – what a treat!
Cindy: Well, Lynn did hit the high points of this intriguing and gorgeously illustrated biography so I went looking online for more information about Mrs. Harkness. I found this Christian Science Monitor article, “How a Party Girl Went in Search of a Panda,” that paints Ruth Harkness in a slightly different light. She was apparently a “chain-smoking, hard-drinking socialite…with a thirst for adventure.” Her husband’s death left her with ”a tiny fortune,” which allowed her to fund her grand adventure and even though she was sometimes carried by the men on a wha-gar on the 1500 mile trek, the trip was still ”a stunning decision for a woman who, Croke notes, ‘wouldn’t even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed.’” And the “dashing young guide” that Lynn mentioned? Ruth and Quentin apparently had an affair on their trip giving additional meaning to Potter’s description about their relationship:
…Quentin, her guide and friend, who had made the dangerous but exhilarating expedition possible. She gave him a carved gold ring to give to his fiancee. It was her wedding band.
I could go on, but this is starting to sound like an Inside Edition special, and we don’t want that. You can read more about the exploits of Mrs. Harkness online. It is interesting that her husband, “Wild Bill” Harkness, while dying of throat cancer before completing his expedition to capture a panda did bring some of the first Komodo Dragons to the U.S. and the Bronx zoo.
I am a huge fan of Melissa Sweet’s work and loved reading that many of the papers and items in the collage illustration were brought back from China a few years ago when she visited there. It is a beautiful book with a fascinating topic that Alicia Potter makes accessible to a young audience.
Common Core Connection: My middle school teachers are busy writing argumentative and informative prompts for their students’ writing assignments next year. The potholes that Lynn enumerates above would provide some interesting topics for these prompts. This picture book could be a spring board to research into some of those issues about exploration and animal treatment resulting in some passionate argumentative writing. –Cindy