mrs harkness and the panda

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

In 1934, Mr. Harkness set out to China to bring the first live panda to the United States.  Unfortunately, he did not survive his journey.  So his young widow, Mrs. Harkness decided to set out and complete her husband’s dream.  Mrs. Harkness was not an adventurer; she designed tea gowns.  She knew that the journey would be hard, maybe even impossible.  But she set off for China and met up with Quentin Young, a man who had seen pandas and agreed to help her.  They packed carefully for the journey, even taking baby formula and bottles in case they found a baby panda.  They journeyed deep into China, until they finally found traces of panda activity, but no pandas.  Then they heard a small sound and followed it to a baby panda hidden in a rotten tree.  Mrs. Harkness had completed the mission!

This is a marvelous biographical picture book about an unlikely adventurer who took an amazing risk, especially after her husband’s death.  The story is told with a wonderful richness that helps bring the time period and this woman to life.  I particularly enjoyed all of the people telling her that it was a mistake and the amazing number of things she took along with her on the journey.  Potter takes the time to really create the world and this character, something that can be missing in picture book nonfiction.

Sweet’s illustrations are marvelous.  They incorporate cut paper art, maps, Chinese lettering, postcards, and lots of little touches that make them especially rich and meaningful.  At the same time, there is a sweetness to the illustrations that works particularly well with this story and the main character.  It also works well with the cuddly furry pandas too.

An inspirational story of adventure with an unlikely heroine at its center.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.