Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter, illustrated by Melissa Sweet ($16.99, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, ages 5 and up) is reviewed today by Rita Zobayan.

As a woman and especially as the mother of two girls, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not able to name very many women scientists, explorers or activists/politicians. So, whenever I come across a book that celebrates the contributions that women have made, I am eager to read it, both for my daughters’ education and my own. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter is an engaging book that will capture the imagination of girls and boys (and adults).

The year is 1934, a time when in Western society pandas are thought to be mythical creatures and women are “considered too dainty for exploring.” Mrs. Harkness, a gown designer who “wasn’t particularly strong, athletic, or daring” doesn’t let societal convention stop her when she decides to find a panda in honor of her husband, who died in China trying to do just that. What unfolds next is the true, heroic and touching story of her quest to complete her husband’s dream when almost everyone in her life tries to convince that she would be foolish to try.

“Mrs. Harkness’s friends scoffed. ‘You’re no explorer!’ ‘You’re out of your head!’ ‘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.”

Through the 40 pages, we read about Mrs. Harkness and her Chinese colleagues, Yang Di Lin and Lao Tsang and their journey through China to find a bei-shung. We also learn how she overcame many obstacles–gender expectations, difficult terrain, and inhospitable weather–to find the first panda shown to Western society. She didn’t let any of the difficulties stop her. I’m guessing this story is not well-known and that’s a shame. Against all odds and expectations, Mrs. Harkness accomplished something that has had a long-lasting impact: “evoking universal sympathy for the plight of the species.”

In addition to the heartfelt story is the eye-catching artwork. Melissa Sweet uses illustrations, water color paintings, collages, traditional Chinese patterns and characters, postcards, maps and photographs, including one of Mrs. Harkness and the panda she named Su Lin, which means “a little bit of something very cute.” Just about every page has a clever use of media that helps capture the feel of the story. Indeed, Sweet mentions in her note that she took a trip to China where she collected items that she used to create the art for the book. The reader (and viewer) really gets a sense of the expedition.

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is an entertaining, educational and worthy read, and one that I (and my daughters) highly recommend.

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