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Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

By: Alicia Potter
illustrated by: Melissa Sweet

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

by Alicia Potter

Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

About the book:

In 1934, Ruth Harkness had never seen a panda bear. Not many people in the world had. But soon the

young Mrs. Harkness would inherit an expedition from her explorer husband: the hunt for a panda. She

knew that bringing back a panda would be hard. Impossible, even. But she intended to try. So she went

to China, where she found a guide, built traps, gathered supplies, and had explorer’s clothes made—all

unheard of for a woman in those days. Then she set out, up the Yangtze River and into the wilderness.

What she discovered would awe America: an adorable baby panda she named Su Lin, which means “a

little bit of something cute.” With breathtaking illustrations by Caldecott Honor‐winning artist Melissa

Sweet, this little‐known true story shares the tale of an adventurous woman whose unforgettable

journey helped shape American attitudes toward wildlife.

About the author:

Alicia Potter, an avid traveler and animal lover, found inspiration to tell this story in the magnitude of

Ruth Harkness’s independence, mission, and legacy. She is also the author of Fritz Danced the Fandango,

which won an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award, and works as a freelance journalist and

children’s book reviewer.

Melissa Sweet is the Caldecott Honor‐winning illustrator of A River of Words by Jen Bryant, The Boy Who

Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies, and The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, and is the author/

illustrator of Carmine: A Little More Red, named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. She was lucky

enough to take a trip to China several years ago, and although she didn’t bring back any pandas, she did

return with a collection of paper and other collage materials that she used to create the art for this



What do you know about panda bears? How did you learn this information?

Questions to consider:

1. In 1934, not many people had ever seen a panda bear. Why?

2. Why didn’t Mrs. Harkness just join her husband on the expedition to find the panda?

3. What terrible news did Mrs. Harkness learn about her husband? Despite what others told her,

what did she decide to do?

4. If you were Mrs. Harkness’s friend, what advice would you have given her about the idea of

inheriting her husband’s expedition to China?

5. Why were her friends so concerned for her safety? Would you be willing to take such a journey

even today?

6. How did Mrs. Harkness get to China? Why do you think she didn’t just fly there?

7. From what locations did she possibly send postcards?

8. What were some of the concerns of people worried about Mrs. Harkness’s safety? Do you think

she listened to any of their advice or not? Why?

9. Explain how Mrs. Harkness prepared for the expedition once she reached China. Why did she

need so much stuff?

10. Describe the different forms of transportation Mrs. Harkness used for each part of her

expedition. Why did she need so many different types? Which one sounds like the most fun?

11. How many people joined her expedition? What did she hire them to do? Would you have gone

to do one of the jobs she offered?

12. Once Mrs. Harkness reached the mountain, what steps did they take to find the pandas?

13. Describe the way Mrs. Harkness and her friend, Quentin, finally found a panda.

14. Just looking at the headlines upon Mrs. Harkness’s return, how did America react to the panda?

Where did Su Lin live in America?

15. Why do you think Mrs. Harkness returned to China?

VOCABULARY: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda


1. Put a √ mark before any word you’ve HEARD before

2. Define any SIX terms in your own words

3. Draw a picture that best represents three of the words























Inspired by Melissa Sweet’s illustration, create a collage piece of your own based on an expedition YOU

would like to take someday. Add a note that explains the location and what you’d like to do there. Think

about: what colors will work best to represent that location? What memorabilia or papers would add

interest? What shapes will you use? Have you included any three‐dimensional objects? Will you use the

whole page or have a border?


Good scientists always ask questions before they do experiments or head out on an expedition.

Brainstorm a list of questions Mrs. Harkness may have wondered about each of these topics. Then write

observations she might have made on each topic.

Topic: Questions: Observations:






Flora & Fauna

(plants and animals)




Noodle with these word problems inspired by the book:

1. Pandas can eat up to 84 pounds of bamboo each day! If bamboo costs $2 how much would it

cost to feed a panda for a day? A week? A whole month (of 30 days)?

2. You want to travel to Hong Kong to plan your own expedition in the mountains of China. If you

have $2,000 in your savings and $4,000 in a checking account, do you have enough if the ticket

costs $3,000 one way?

3. If you need to hire one person to carry each of your 22 bags on the expedition and each person

wants to be paid $10 each day, how much should you budget for a seven‐day trip? A twelve‐day

trip? A six‐month trip?

4. If the panda baby drinks three bottles of milk each day, how many will you have to make each

week? What if he drinks four bottles each day? Ten bottles each day?

5. You want to send 10 postcards to your friends back home. If each postcard costs 25 cents to buy

and send, how much should you budget? What if you want to send 20 postcards?

Music: Sing to the tune “Frere Jacques”

Mrs. Harkness

Mrs. Harkness

sailed to China

sailed to China

On an expedition

She brought back a panda

named Su Lin

named Su Lin


Using the “Chronology of Events” in the back of the book, create a timeline that also includes at least

THREE important historical events (American or World events) that happened at the same time. Then,

with a friend, talk about how these events may have made Mrs. Harkness’s journey easier or more


Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a reading specialist and children’s book author, created this guide. Find

hundreds more like it available at her website!