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Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

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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Learn Chinese With Disney

I love learning languages. I speak French and German, but those are probably ranked a 4 on a scale of 1-10 where Chinese might be a 9, so when I heard from an old friend, Melinda Thompson, that she had helped create a way to teach Chinese to English speakers, I was intrigued.  Could an over 40-year-old still learn with relative ease even as all those brain cell connections were diminishing daily? I made tracks to iTunes where I tried out Disney Publishing Worldwide’s clever new iPad app geared for children that teaches Chinese to English speakers and English to Chinese speakers through Toy Story 3. It makes total sense that working with a familiar story helps children easily pick up some basics of a new language while having fun at the same time. Thompson, Senior Producer, Book & Print at Disney English, sat down with me so I could learn the ins and outs of this exciting new learning tool for kids and parents that is available from iTunes in their educational section for only $4.99 in the U.S. 

Not only is the LEARN AND READ CHINESE app colorful and cool to look at, but it’s so easy to use that even I, a 21st century technology dinosaur, could navigate it after clicking on the tutorial tab. In a nutshell the app works like this: in the most basic setting level , a reader would find all of the story’s words in English which is essentially 100% English. The next level introduces a child to a quarter of the words in Chinese. Level three has half the words in Chinese and next they move on at level 4 to three quarters of the words or 75% in Chinese. Before they know it, they’ve reached the last level where the entire story is in 100% Chinese. 

Trying my hand at the app, I boldy went to the second level where a quarter of the words were in Chinese and noticed I’d forgotten the meaning of one of the Chinese words. First, to hear the word pronounced I just had to touch it.  Then all I had to do was use my finger to flick the word down to the translation box for the meaning. You can imagine I did a lot of flicking so to my delight I learned that rather than a blinking red light warning me to start on some Gingko Biloba, I actually got a little award for the amount of flicking I had done! 

In case you did not know this, the Learn and Read Chinese app uses an approach called Diglot Weave. Thompson explained that Diglot Weave teaches language by making a story based on the similarities of the different languages. In this case English and Chinese.  As I made my way through the different levels she said, “you’ve probably noticed the writing is filled with repetitive words and the sentences are written in a very specific way. And that’s because we only want to use words that are easy to translate.”

I was clearly hooked by this intelligent teaching method. “We don’t want anything that’s going to be too different from English and Chinese.” She explained the nuances of sentence structure, too. “Because you are moving onto 100% Chinese eventually, the sentence structure is important so we want to minimize those instances where English and Chinese are grammatically different. For that reason we have to take grammar and the way things are pronounced into account. The way that a child goes through this is to start with 100% English and gradually go to the next level. The names of the characters are most often the easiest to recognize in Chinese.”  I also learned that in written form using the English language, the Chinese used in the app is called Pinyin (created in the 1950s) because traditional Chinese, such as Mandarin, uses characters in written form.  The voice on the app is speaking in a Beijing, mainland China accent.

The largest image above shows the intro page with the icons at the bottom indicating: Tutorial (how-to), Achievement Stickers, Table of Contents, My Words (glossary), and Pinyin Tonal Marks, and Information (educational explanation and credits).

Q. Toy Story 3 was selected because the app plays off the fact that it’s a story we’re all very familiar with and that also helps us learn the words, right?

A. Yes, that along with the sound effects, that helps the reader and clues them into words.

Q. I thought the images would move, but this is much more like a picture book and it’s beautiful.  Everything is stationary.  Are these cells taken right from film?

A. The artwork in this app was done by our publishing division when the film came out. When they turn a film into a book they always make artwork to go with the book because screen shots from film will not work.

Q. Will my prononciation be corrected if I say a word wrong or if it’s unintelligible with my strong New York accent?

A. Voice recognition is not quite there yet for this app, but there’s no doubt it will happen one day.

Q. Is there something good about getting the award, do you get a certificate?  I liked the alert when I had received one.

A. You collect your awards on the Achievement page which is like a sticker book for each category you’ve completed.

Q. Is there a page that shows a Chinese learner some of the words written in character form?

A. Yes, there’s a Glossary where you can see first English, then Pinyin Chinese and then the Characters. There are around 64 words in glossary for main words used in story.

 QDoes Chinese have the same vowels as in English, a, e, i, o, and u?

A. Chinese is a character based. Pinyin was created to help people who know a phonetic based language like English understand Chinese.

NOTE: One other thing Thompson mentioned is that Chinese is based on tones and on this app there is a way to hear the tones, some easy some more subtle.  Believe it or not there are five tones for the two letters MA, for example there’s a rising tone, a falling tone, and a short tone  All the vowels in Chinese have different tones, too.

To sum things up, in order to use this app effectively, a child should first focus on learning to listen and speak Chinese. Next, once they’ve grasped that, they can start learning characters. This Learn and Read Chinese app from Disney mimics the way that most speakers of English and non-character based languages most frequently learn Chinese. So the key to learning is to move at a comfortable pace as there is no time limit involved. There are more than 100 Chinese words in the book so readers can learn this gradually when taking their time and going through the different levels. Thompson suggests that a child go at least five times through each different level and probably many more times than that.

Zàijiàn- Goodbye and  zhù nǐ xìngyùn – Good luck!


Educational Advisor: Yuhua Ji, PhD Chair, Professor, and PhD Program Advisor,
Department of English Language and Literature, Xiamen University, P.R. China

 App Developer: MegatonMedia

 App Art and Design: Kurt Hartman, Art and Design

 Bilingual Narrator: Elsi Eng

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Welcoming in the Chinese New Year Part II

After reading Crouching Tiger written by Ying Chang Compestine with gorgeous gouaches by Yan Nascimbene ($16.99, Candlewick, ages 6-10) I can truly appreciate the beauty and spectacle that is the Chinese New Year. According to the author’s note in the book’s end pages, the Chinese New Year usually falls sometime between January and February, lasts for 15 days and is based on the lunar calendar like the Jewish holidays.

A book that brings generations together, Crouching Tiger  focuses on the relationship between a young Chinese-American boy and his grandfather visiting from China. Vinson (aka Ming Da) is curious about his grandfather’s daily practice of tai chi, an ancient martial art that the author tells us is more about inner-body strength rather than something like kung fu which is more about fighting and self defense. Unable to get the knack of the discipline involved in learning tai chi, Vinson grew bored with his grandfather and “As the week passed, I felt cheated. Maybe Grandpa didn’t know real kung fu.” He even began feeling slightly embarrassed in his grandfather’s presence.

However it’s not long before there’s a shift in his attitude due to an unexpected incident that has got Vinson eager to revisit tai chi with the help of his grandpa. At the New Year parade in Chinatown Vinson experiences all the joy and excitement the celebration brings as he is honored with the role of cabbage boy in the Lion dancers’ performance. Instead of avoiding tai chi, Vinson now embraces it due to his grandfather’s patience and wisdom. “I promise I will practice harder,” Vinson says to his grandfather as they head for home when the parade has ended. You can be certain he will!

This Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review book is ideal to read with the approaching Chinese New Year, but it also shows children that while they may know a lot about electronics, there is still a lot their elders can teach them that is both interesting and enjoyable.

CROUCHING TIGER. Text copyright © 2011 by Ying Chang Compestine. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Yan Nascimbene. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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Welcoming in the Chinese New Year

The Year of the Dragon, Chinese New Year, begins January 23, 2012

Ronna Mandel has chosen two books to review this week to help you kick off the Chinese New Year; the first is the winner of a New York Times BEST ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK AWARD and the second is a Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW.

I just loved the simple yet moving story of  A New Year’s Reunion written by Yu Li-Qiong with its dynamic and joyous illustrations by Zhu Cheng-Liang ($15.99, Candlewick Press, ages 3-5). Perhaps as early as preschool, I used to enjoy learning about holidays and celebrations around the world. Whether hearing stories about Children’s Day in Japan or Guy Fawkes Day in England, I would sit back, close my eyes and transport myself to the destination and imagine myself participating in the festivities.

A New Year’s Reunion manages to recreate the anticipation and excitement of the Chinese New Year for young readers as well as convey the beautiful story of a Maomao, a little girl in China, being reunited with her beloved father who works in faraway destinations building houses. Each year at the Chinese New Year Maomao’s Papa returns home for several days and together the daddy and daughter delight in all the little pleasures a parent can share with their child.  While Maomao was indeed sad to see her Papa have to pack up and once again travel hundreds of miles from home for his job, the fact that the two, together with Maomao’s loving mother, had spent such quality, love-filled time together was certainly what helped the family endure such a difficult separation.

Whether their parents travel on business for long or short periods of time, children will relate to the universal emotions so touchingly portrayed in this delightful book.



A NEW YEAR’S REUNION. Text copyright © 2007 by Yu Li-Qiong. Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Zhu Cheng-Liang.Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.


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