Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Counting Down to Earth Day: Day 5

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda
By Alicia Potter
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
$16.99, ages 5-8, 40 pages

Before anyone had heard of "panda-monium," the excitement that surrounds seeing pandas.

Before many Americans had even imagined that the gamboling, masked panda of legend was real.

There was a tea gown designer who, despite knowing little about animals, set off for China to bring a panda to America: not in a cage but curled up in her arms.

In this charming historical picture book, author Alicia Potter tells the story of Ruth Harkness, a Manhattan widow who set off on a journey no one thought she could make.

Her mission was to find a mythical beast known as a panda and show the world that it really existed.

In doing so, many conservationists say, she made us want to love them and spurred a worldwide effort to stop hunting them.

Award-winning author Alicia Potter paints a romantic, endearing picture of this self-made explorer, while Caldecott Honor-winning Melissa Sweet gives her account the charm of scrapbook.

Torn-edged photos of her journeys and newspaper clips are recreated with watercolors, then set over scrolls of Chinese letters or notebook paper, while antique-looking postcards are quaintly taped onto maps.

Delicate touches draw readers in, as do little souvenirs that give pages a sense of authenticity.

A red dotted line on a map marks Harkness's route from Manhattan to Hong Kong and is overlaid with a tiny painting of a steamer, and in a real photograph, we glimpse Harkness as she cradles the panda in her lap.

Today the idea of taking an animal from the wild to live in a zoo may seem wrong, yet back then zoos were the main way people learned about and appreciated animals, author Alicia Potter writes.

There were few TVs and commercial air travel wasn't widespread.

But Ruth Harkness had the means to show us one. A New York socialite, she just needed someone to lead her.

Her husband, explorer Bill Harkness, had died of cancer while searching for a panda in China, and Harkness was determined to continue his mission.

So, this gutsy widow packed her bags and took over his quest. She wasn't particularly athletic, she'd never travelled abroad and except for her house cats she knew little of animals.

What's more, many scoffed at her. "You can't climb mountains," one friend of her husband said, while others warned of bandits and disease, even death. But she didn't listen.

With persistance, she found someone who believed in her, a Chinese-American explorer Quentin Young in Shanghai, and he joined her campaign.

First they needed supplies, fur-hooded parkas and woolen underwear, and to find a shoemaker to cobble down Mr. Harkness's old boots to fit her. They packed maps, sleeping bag, even guns.

Then with twenty-two pieces of luggage, they set sail up the Yangtze River to Chungking, where they drove another 300 miles more before starting a trek up the mountains into snowy bamboo forests.

There were many signs of pandas of these elevations. Droppings, crunched bamboo stalks and claw marks in trees. But it took them at least a month before they saw one.

That day, November 9, 1936, high in mountains, they heard a cub in an old dead tree whimper and coaxed it down.

"Quentin tucked the baby in his shirt, and he and Mrs. Harkness slid and staggered back to camp," Potter writes.

Harkness named the cub Su-Lin, meaning "a little bit of something very cute," and the world's love of pandas, many say, was borne.

Harkness's intentions back then are disputed --  while some authors like Potter paint glowing pictures of her, others have railed Harkness as selfish and even ruthless.

But reading this captivating story, readers will hope that she was everything Potter describes.

At the least, she raised awareness of one of the most mysterious animals of her day -- and made many of us wish we could keep them safe.

Today, pandas number only about 1,600.

Low reproduction rates (females give birth to one cub about every two years), bamboo shortages and habitat loss, as well as illegal hunting continue to push these bears toward extinction.

Yet the battle to save them is fierce. Today, poachers and panda hunters are sentenced to 20 years in prison if caught, and more than 50 panda reserves have been set aside in China.

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