Many women down through history have done unexpected things that make them not only champions for their gender, but also heroines for the more obvious reasons. Alicia Potter’s 2012 picture book biography, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Knopf, 2012), is the story of just such an unlikely heroine. It is the story of Ruth Harkness, who in 1934 kissed her husband goodbye as he sailed off to China in search of a panda to bring home, the first of its kind to be seen in the United States. Ruth Harkness stayed home and designed tea gowns, as was expected of a woman in her time, though she did expect to join her husband at the end of his expedition. However, tragedy struck, and Ruth received word that William Harkness had died in China. In Ruth Harkness’ own words, “I had inherited an expedition.” She set out for China despite the naysayers and despite complications and difficulties.
After many people told her it couldn’t be done, Ruth found a champion and encourager in a young Chinese man she called Quentin Young, and he helped her on her journey in a multitude of ways, from packing for the trip (no small task!) to navigating the waterways and mountainous terrain. Ruth Harkness and her expedition finally found their panda, and when she brought baby Su Lin home to the U.S., “panda-monium” broke out. In addition to introducing these black and white furry creatures to what quickly became an adoring public, Ruth Harkness also gained for herself a new title: “woman explorer.”
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda was awarded a 2012 Cybils Award in the nonfiction picture category. Not only is this an engaging and well-written tale about a little-known woman from history, it is also beautifully illustrated by the inimitable Melissa Sweet in her trademark watercolor and mixed media style. Using actual maps, Chinese characters, and facsimiles of newspapers, Sweet’s illustrations evoke the feeling of both the time and place in history. This is an excellent biography that appeals to a variety of ages and is well deserving of the accolades it has received. Highly Recommended!