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Multiracial characters in books

  • Posted on June 13, 2015 at 3:16 PM

Where are the books with multiracial characters? How are these books being tracked? Why does it seem like this form of diversity is ignored and dismissed? I started asking teachers at my school just how many students they thought were biracial or multiracial. They were surprised because that wasn’t a category they considered. Some said 5-10%. None of them really worried about the category because as one teacher said to me, “Most of the kids would just choose to be black.” Stop and think about what such a statement means. If you were to say this when the student was in front of you, what impact and what message would this send?

Timothy and Anthony Chen

My Beautiful Boys

I have two biracial/multiracial sons. Their father is Chinese. My heritage includes Norwegian, Dutch, French, Scots-Irish – the typical northwest Iowa mashup. I’ll never forget the day when my oldest son answered someone who asked what race he was, that he was Norwegian. The expression on their face was priceless.

In February the Cooperative Children’s Book Center had released  “Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States” Statistics Gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Each year they analyze the books they receive for non-white diversity and categorize them into these four racial categories: African Americans; American Indians; Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans; Latinos.

Debbie Reese at her blog analyzed this in relationship to which books were about Native Americans and which were written and or illustrated by Native Americans.   Debbie advocates daily for Native Americans. Who is advocating for multiracial families? I started pondering and thinking deeply about this back in February. I began researching for a blog post. I emailed various bloggers, authors, and publishers. I asked questions of trend spotters.

I’m not alone.  The Washington Post’s Nevin Martell is a freelance writer who blogged asking, “Where are all the interracial children’s books?” Unless you directly have an interest and have biracial/multiracial/interracial children, it appears you don’t care.

My problem is that there is no one out there tracking or looking for any trend on multiracial characters in literature. Over twenty years ago I began pleading with authors like Laurence Yep and Ed Young to please write for my sons and for our future blended generations. One year I was ranting about this and Arnold Adoff spoke up and said, “Honey, I get this.” (Have I mentioned again how much I adore that man?!) The number of blended children increases. The number of books with their faces and their families doesn’t.

Cynthia Leitich Smith has some blog posts where she explores Interracial Family Themes in Picture Books and an excellent introduction to the topic of exploring multi-racial families. Throughout her blog as Cynthia explores diversity, I feel like I could curl up and chat with her about these issues openly for hours.

The blog Brown Baby Reads keeps us current about books with African American children and gives me some hope with their list of Books about Multiracial Children & Families. The Epic Adventures of a Modern Mom has some children’s books featuring interracial families. If you are seeking to adopt a child or explain a multiracial adoption, there is a short list here Multiracial Diversity Books for Adopted Children.

I keep searching for other blogs, but I need your suggestions. In 2010 there was a post “Books with Biracial Children” but it looks like it’s archived and not updated at There is an extremely confusing list from GoodReads that I wouldn’t depend upon. Maybe some library student can undertake this project.

One of the best discoveries while researching for this article was The Grio Raising biracial kids in 2013: The challenges and the opportunities for the African-American community by Suzanne Rust | August 5, 2013 I quote: “As more African-American women are considering marrying outside their race than ever, and 25 percent of black men married interracially in 2010, issues relating to how their children will be treated and perceived are paramount.” It goes on to explore the topics of being “other”, the census and having to choose a category, and racial profiling.

book cover for The Case for Love

The Case for Loving

One of my favorite books this year was The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls. If I’d known I was leaving my school, I wouldn’t have donated all my copies and would have kept one to take with me to my new school!  Scholastic publishers description:

This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state’s laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents’ love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — and won!

Yesterday, NPR recognized Loving Day with this broadcast:

When I moved my family to Nashville in 1997, one of my young co-teachers was chatting with me one day at dismissal when a mixed family was picking up their child. She suddenly mentioned how she was from Mississippi and she was sorry, but that just didn’t set right with her. I looked at her and said, “You do realize my last name is Chen, right? My husband was Chinese. I have two half Chinese sons. They are absolutely beautiful and their is nothing wrong with that.” I don’t think she ever recovered from that moment and transferred midyear. I never treated her badly and did try to show her through love and kindness that my children were a beautiful blessing, but I have always wondered if her views on life have changed.

Forcing me to finish this blog post is the upcoming ALA Conference in San Francisco where Diversity is being celebrated in many ways. Today Jason Low, Lee & Low Books emailed out congratulations to Juan Felipe Herrera the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate, and their  Diverse Summer Reading Lists from LEE & LOW BOOKS.  They included a link to a Proportional Perspective Infographic on the world’s native languages. While Chinese continues to be the most populous, I laugh at the irony that my alma mater in Iowa is disbanding their program where I studied modern languages with an emphasis on Chinese and a minor focus in Spanish. Such lack of vision but they’ll save money.

Don’t miss Publisher Jason Low’s Ignite Session on Diversity’s Action Plan onSaturday, June 27 at 11:30AM in the Moscone Convention Center room 130 (N).  Want more diversity? Here’s a list of more diversity-related programming and events happening at the show. LEE & LOW BOOKS will be located at booth #1020. I continue to admire their publishing efforts and support them as often as I can in spreading the word.

One new book on my list to gift is I am Mixed. If you go to the link, you will see some excellent other suggestions below to accompany this list.  I wanted to include a picture, but Amazon only had an image to the Kindle edition. Great reviews even from Susan Graham of

Phrases to Validate Readers

  • Posted on June 6, 2015 at 9:15 AM

“Thanks for reading that to me. You may have saved my life. ”

“Wow! I’m glad you caught that. Something terrible could have happened.”

Seem overly dramatic? What if you didn’t read the prescription label and took someone else’s pills or the wrong amount? You could die. What if you didn’t read the label printed inside your car door or on your tire and over inflated your tire? It could explode. Or in the case of my ex-husband, you could put 70 pounds of pressure in a tire in winter and have no traction at all on ice – causing us to go careening across the road into a deep ditch.  Reading is a vital activity that saves lives and is a necessary skill.

Often librarians emphasize how good reading makes you feel, but as teachers we need to help children and young adults understand that all types of reading are valuable. The ability to read car manuals, road signs, driver’s education training materials, car purchasing documents, and insurance papers is important. I took my sons with me to the store to teach them how to look up my car model and locate the parts I needed. This is an essential reference and research tool. It requires reading. Yes, some computer programs now can do this, but its much faster if you are standing in an aisle and can flip to the chart and scan along the page to your model. We even would have races against the computer to see who could find the right part first.

The ability to read cook books, food labels, warning labels on cooking pans and oils, and recipes online is important. Teaching children how to read the labels on boxes to see how many ounces of jello are in the box compared to how many they need in the recipe then teaching them how to compute changes are valuable hands-on-skills parents need to be involved in. These are teachable moments when a simple comment on the importance of being able to scan quickly can be effective.

A trend in schools is to focus on social and emotional learning (again). This week I will spend two days on Restorative Practices and focus on SEL. While I am thinking about student’s emotional well-being, I am also thinking about their needs to validate their reading abilities and their recognition of when they are reading. Not just when they are novel reading, but when they are “vital reading.”

Please continue to leave comments of positive phrases to promote reading.

Seeking test banks of Information Literacy & library focused question

  • Posted on January 11, 2014 at 4:37 PM

While assisting teachers with instructional design and putting together my pacing guides for this semester, I realized that I spend far too much time reinventing the wheel. There are many school librarians out there who have developed test banks of questions for use with programs like Examview, Smartboards, Promethean boards, CPS clickers, Promethean clickers, etc. Where are these and why are they so difficult to find?

If the nation has a “common core” of state standards, there should be some consistency in the items we assess. Rather than just waiting around anxiously for the PARCC assessment, we should be actively defining and pinpointing the most important areas. Why should it only be businesses that generate test questions? I’m currently waiting for the ability to input reading textbook questions into our teacher’s libraries. Why should I have to wait to assess this using a narrow focus of text?

Librarians can help teachers by creating banks of questions to integrate into basic information literacy instruction. I’m not advocating for any more paper tests, but I am looking for quick questions that other librarians use to do on-the-fly or formative assessment. If I want to be sure students know the difference between primary and secondary sources, wouldn’t five well-developed questions be helpful?

The Library of Congress Summer Institutes have been announced so I spent time today writing my application and minimizing my answers to 500 characters. I’d like to know if anyone has already developed a tool like this to make my instruction easier. I can go to to download flipcharts created by teachers and librarians,  but they aren’t specific enough to directly correlate with what I teach in the library. The TRAILS test is essentially a test bank of questions that can be used, but the level of assessment is higher than my beginning learners are prepared. I need something easier, broader, and for younger learners. Any ideas?

Bill Page is a man after my own heart

  • Posted on June 9, 2012 at 1:40 PM

Sandra Southerland, the amazing Library Media Specialist at J. E. Moss Elementary School, sent me a link to an article about teaching at-risk kids. I clicked the link thinking that I would find typical strategies. Instead, I discovered Bill Page and his outlook on teaching. I found Bill’s emphasis on empathy and compassion refreshing. The article is called “Confessions and Concessions of a Compassionate Teacher” and is featured on gazette. Vol 9 No 6. June 2012

The beginning states the “article is intended to help teachers use their time between now and the start of the 2012-2013 school year to reflect, ponder, and prepare for a great new, better year for them and their students.”

One of the most important characteristics of an exceptional teacher is reflection. Bill Page’s article stands as a model for reflecting on teaching.

Bill lays out some of his personal educational beliefs. The entire article is a must-read, but I’ll list just a few of his beliefs:

  • Student-Teacher Relationship Is the Key

He states “1. I believe that the teacher-student relationship and students realizing their responsibility for their own learning are the crucial elements.”

He discusses the quandary teachers face choosing “Aloof and Professional Vs. Honest and Empathetic.” As most of you can guess, I always choose honest and empathetic. This has earned me some scorn from people who want the library to be a silent place with few people to disturb the slumber of the books. My faculty has been doing quite a bit of professional development lately including the use of MORNING MEETINGS! Those morning meetings will help establish this relationship.

The list of ways to help establish a strong relationship and enable effective learning is impressive. I will be asking Bill Page for permission to put this in bookmark format and hand to my teachers at the beginning of school.

  • Self-Reflection and Self Critique

Bill Page writes “2. I believe that I used my authority to change my teaching and the class conditions rather than change kids; kids can change themselves.”

Again, this helps teachers model what we constantly say. You can only be responsible for your own response, your own reaction, and your own choice how you deal with things. Teach students honestly and demonstrate that failure is part of learning. One of the most successful classes I ever had was when I paused in the middle of “instructing” and led a class discussion on why this wasn’t working and what we could change in the lesson so they could grasp the concepts better. Students had excellent ideas and I’m glad I listened. They had further buy-in for future lessons because I was able to change to meet their needs, not try to force 30 students to change themselves to learn.

  • The Changing Role of Teachers

Bill notes: “3. I believe school learning occurs in the interaction between teachers and students, students and students, as well as between students and media/materials. The teacher’s function is to present, mediate, facilitate, and encourage the interaction.”

  •  Change Requires Each Educator to Change Him/Herself

Specifically Bill pointed out “4. Teachers realized that involvement, independent learning, communities of learners, collaborative and cooperative learning, problem approach, and authentic, project, and thematic learning results in extraordinary learning.”

Finally Bill concludes “5. I believe that major discipline problems in the classroom arise out of attempts by teachers to control the students instead of controlling the learning environment in which the teacher, in control of him/herself, is a part.”

Bill Page’s book, At-Risk Students; Feeling Their Pain is available through his web site, or through

I am very excited about this article and hope to interview Bill Page soon to ask more. Be sure to check out the article ” “Confessions and Concessions of a Compassionate Teacher” 

Privacy and Getting ebooks on your reader

  • Posted on May 31, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Students come to peer over my shoulder and see what books are on my Kindle Fire. Sometimes I’m willing to show them, sometimes I’m not. Many of my Kindle ebook titles are lendable. I obtain many to share with students and my new grandchildren. However…, I have some titles that are for adult eyes only. During the day, I keep those in the Cloud and download them in the privacy of my home.

While discussing this with some former students of mine who are now in high school, we were able to talk about the need for privacy in reading choices. We agreed that digital downloading ebooks made it easier to obtain books that they didn’t want their friends to read. I used this as an opportunity to talk about ALA’s Choose Privacy week.

One example of a title I didn’t want everyone to know I was reading was

The Founding Fathers: American Legends by Charles River Editors. I love history and reading about heroes and legends. I discovered this title through a service called PIXEL OF INK. I am loving my emails from Pixel of Ink. Every day they email me titles that are temporarily available for free downloading from the Amazon store for my kindle. I specified that I wanted to receive their adult fiction, and their young edition. Here’s the description they provided for  The Founding Fathers: American Legends.

The Founding Fathers have held a special place in American society since the nation gained its freedom, and many of them had become national heroes even before then. Over 200 years later, Americans still look with reverence to these men, often debating with each other what the Founding Fathers would think about a certain issue, or how they would judge a certain law or legislation. In many respects, these men have become icons, whose words, thoughts and deeds are rarely questioned.

Like all legends, the staggering accomplishments of the Founding Fathers not only earned them monuments and memorials but helped enshrine their legacies, to the point that they are looked at almost as demigods above reproach. The Founding Fathers examines all of the colossal events and actions these men took, but it also analyzes what these men were really like, and how their personalities and passions helped shape the destiny of the country they founded and led.

Another title that has totally fascinated me has been Chemistry for Everyone by Suzanne Lahl and illustrated by  Cris Qualiana. In high school, I loved chemistry taught by Mrs. Pope. I found chemistry finally made mathematics useful and interesting. I was also thrilled to have a female science teacher and admired her greatly. When my #1 son decided to take Chemistry and Advanced Chemistry in high school, I was so thrilled to be able to share this love of science with him. Imagine my surprise when I saw just how far the field had gone since my studies 20 years earlier. His textbook resembled the college textbooks  I drooled over in the college bookstore. I wanted to read his entire book, yet thought I wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap.

Allow came Chemistry for Everyone. It is intended to provide a big picture of chemistry for those who want to take a chemistry class in high school or in college. The author encourages the reader to read this during the summer before class to have time to absorb some of the concepts and to contemplate the larger world.

Last night I was reading aloud Chemistry for Everyone to my husband while we sat drinking coffee in a local Waffle House. I couldn’t contain my excitement over quickly grasping and refreshing myself on chemistry topics. I couldn’t wait to share this with my friends. I got so excited over contemplating Mole and Molarity, Solubility, and Bonding that I looked up and said it was making me shiver with glee. Then I asked the question we librarians should never ask, “Does liking this make me a geek?” The answer is always yes, so why do I even bother to ask?

Back to why I like getting my ebooks on my Kindle Fire reader — PRIVACY. Those at Waffle House listening to my mesmerizing read-aloud at eleven p.m. last night may not always appreciate my choices, but through my device, no one else has to know what’s exciting me.

If you haven’t checked out Pixel of Ink or similar services, please do give them a look. They save me a great deal of time and have provided a wide variety of titles available free of charge for limited times. They save me time looking and lots of money sampling. If I like the first title in a series, I do go back and buy the rest of the series. I think authors and publishers who offer these freely are doing a good job marketing their titles. While libraries have to worry about those publishers charging ten times what a title costs a general citizen, services like Pixel of Ink help fill in my reading gaps at greatly reduced or free rates.

Already this summer I’ve read 22 adult titles with dystopian worlds, disasters, zombies, and more. Some of these include: Ruling Passion by Alyxandra Harvey (one of my favorite romantic without any naughty stuff vampire titles for teens), Zomblog, The Last Jump: A Novel of WWII, Bad Waters, The Walking People, Sector C by Phoenix Sullivan, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Smoke and Magic, Murder on a Girl’s Night Out by the late Anne George, Sleepers, Breathless, Algebra Unplugged, Star Wars Lost Tribe of the Sith,Christine Feehan’s The Leopard Series Books 1-3, and a few others I choose not to name.

Pixel of Ink offers several different lists on their blog as indicated below.


Children’s Books


You can sign up to receive one, some, or all; alternately you can just visit their site daily or follow them on facebook and twitter. I chose Free & Bargain Books plus the Pixel of Ink Young Edition. If you receive notice about something else that looks great from a different list, be sure to share it on my new blog domain as of tomorrow:

Libraries are all about sharing and I don’t mind paying for a good book if you recommend it.

Fundraisers and School Libraries

  • Posted on May 7, 2012 at 2:01 PM

Are fundraisers worth it anymore for school libraries? In Tennessee we can only have two tax-free fundraisers a year in a school. After that all fundraisers – even those occurring earlier in the year are taxable. If I have a bookfair and charge tax as I’m legally supposed to do then the PTO can only hold one more fundraiser in the year. That means one taxed fundraiser and one untaxed fundraiser. If I tried to hold two untaxed and the bookfair, both of the others would be taxed. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.

My Book Fairs do not earn much over $1000 cash profit. The PTO candy sales can earn $5000 easily. So why do I still bother with a book fair?

I believe the value of our bookfair is not just in the cash profit we earn, but in the entire experience of the bookfair. We try to make it an event with decorations, contests, family participation, food, and with building excitement about reading. We integrate standards into booktalks and mini-lessons. We read aloud from some of the titles and watch students eagerly purchase that title for their own collection. We talk books. We talk authors. We talk series. We talk about matching our personal interests with reading.

You cannot do those things with a candy bar or lollipop. So even though we don’t make much profit, we will continue to want to hold the event.

I am wondering though if schools will open their eyes in the future though and decide that our profit is too small to justify giving up a slot to the bookfair.

How does your state handle fundraisers?

Limitless Libraries and Weeding lists

  • Posted on May 7, 2012 at 9:01 AM

The day has arrived. It looks like Nashville’s budget is going to include the elementary school libraries in the Limitless Library program next year. This will add tremendous access to the Nashville Public Libraries to our collections. It has been a wonderful program at the high school and middle school level. I am very supportive and excited to be part of this.

At the same time the program is geared towards cleaning up collections to weed out older materials and create gaps or opportunities for the public library to help the school library. One of the first steps involves the public library using Karen Lowe’s weeding formulas to create lists of materials to either keep, evaluate, or discard. These are simply quick guidelines and it is still up to the school librarian to make the final decisions. They are formula based on the copyright age only.

I received my lists last week. When I came to my school this year, I realized the reference collection needed serious weeding. I took out the worst offenders, but left some series since the principal was concerned that I not take all without replacing. To comply with the weeding lists, my principal is going to be shocked at how little is left.

I purchased the Britannica Student Encyclopedia this year and have been teaching all my encyclopedia skills through it and my online sets of Britannica and World Book. That expense took a major portion of my budget and I couldn’t afford any other reference sources.

When I received the weeding list for reference, only five titles are listed in the keep section. All the others are listed as to be evaluated or discarded. I can discard the 167 other titles and I will be left with these five titles.

  • The World Book dictionary from 2007
  • 2006 World Book Student Discovery Encyclopedia
  • 2008 World Book Encyclopedia
  • Britannica student encyclopedia 2012
  • Titanic by Jenkins, Martin. 2008 (although I think it’s only in reference because it’s oversized).

All the science encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, atlases, dictionaries, thesaurus, picture dictionaries, and even the only Tennessee biographical dictionary are slated for removal. Do I take a leap of faith and just get rid of all of those?

I had left the endangered species encyclopedia set from 1995 since next year the entire school will have a theme of dinosaurs and endangered/extinct animals as their PBL (project based learning project) for nine weeks. My thoughts were those sets would at least provide names of animals for my students to research whether they continue to be on the endangered and extinct list or whether their status had improved. If I simply go with the weeding lists, I will have nothing.

My school is a STEM school – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I need access to up-to-date reference materials and nonfiction. Will the public library budget be able to replace titles to meet our needs? I will keep you informed as we progress.

I don’t even want to mention how ridiculous the list is for easy books. According to a computer formula, all old picture books would go including Newbery and Caldecott winners, early Berenstain bear titles, Miss Nelson is Missing and more. I’m glad that I will be able to use my own judgement on these lists because a computer will never be able to replace the brain of a librarian.

The Only Good Part of Testing

  • Posted on April 30, 2012 at 7:32 PM

is that students cannot wait for the testing to end so they can read.

Imagine a 55 minute test that has 95% of the students finished in 20. What will they do after testing? Nothing. They cannot read a book. They cannot turn their tests in early. They cannot write. They cannot draw. They must simply sit there. If they put their head down on the desk, fall asleep and drool – the teacher is in trouble for ruining the answer sheet.

Even during their ten minute break between parts 1 & 2 (AKA Parts A & B), they are not allowed to read. The inhumanity! Today was our fourth and final day of testing for third and fourth graders. Before the test started several had shown me their books they were currently reading. Many of the children were pleading to use their downtime to read. Some had checked their tests over 2 and 3 times and weren’t going to do any better with the extra time.

As soon as the test ended, they cheered with one arm and drug out books with the other. They couldn’t wait to get back to reading and learning something. They were fidgeting because they wanted out of those chairs and to be allowed back in the library to get new books. I watched as they stacked 4-5 titles each instead of the district’s suggested 2 titles. They had reading to catch up on and had been deprived by four days of testing.

So what did I do? I reminded them that when they grew up, they could become politicians and remember that testing was never as important as reading. They could vote to provide access to more reading materials and waste less time on testing materials if they believed reading was more important.

Shoutout! Hey, Michael Dahl, the students in Ms T’s third grade class want you to know that they think the Library of Doom serious is awesome, incredible, and very exciting. One even called it spine-tingling scary but not the kind that kept you up at night. I found homemade bookmarks and notes they sent each other describing where the books “lived” in the library and how to request a book be reserved.

A woman explorer & Giant Panda mythbuster

  • Posted on March 28, 2012 at 5:53 AM

I am blogging for the KidLit Celebrates Women’s History site today and cross-posting here.

Quick! Name ten explorers. How many of them were women? Perhaps you listed Sacagawea or Amelia Earhart? Did you include Delia Akeley, Christina Dodwell, Mary Kingsley, Florence Baker, Alexandrine Tinne, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Florence Von Sass Baker, Isabella Bird Bishop, Annie Peck, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Eva Dickson, Marie-Anne Gaboury, Jeanne Baret, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Freya Stark, Valentina Tereshkova, Robyn Davidson, Liv Arnesen, Kira Salak, Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Harriet Chalmers Adams, or Ruth Harkness?

If it weren’t for Alicia Potter’s sharing the story of Ruth Harkness in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, I would not have begun to seek names of women explorers. Melissa Sweet illustrates this gem from Alfred Knopf, 2012. This picturebook retelling of the story of Ruth Harkness’ expedition to China to bring back the first live panda inspired me to delve more into women explorers, particularly Ruth Harkness.

Deborah Watson-Novacek ( created pages on squidoo for Female Explorers. Her article aided my exploration and helped provide many helpful links. I was able to read several accounts of Ruth Harkness’ achievements including

I have often wondered why some people in history had such a strong desire to travel, to wander, and to explore that they were willing to give all in their efforts. What qualities did these people possess that enabled them to achieve more than others? None of these people were perfect. Most had conflicts in their personal lives and many did not reap great benefits from their explorations.

The article in the Christian Science Monitor by Adelle Waldman on August 9, 2005, “How a party girl went in search of a panda: The true tale of a 1930s New York socialite who trekked Tibet determined to bring home a cub.”  reviewed Vicki Constantine Croke’s book “The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal.”  The writer states “That Harkness had flaws does not, of course, make her an unworthy subject for a biography – on the contrary, it perhaps makes her all the more interesting.”

To me, this acknowledgement of flaws makes a biography far more believable. Croke’s novel provides additional information and does not have to sift through details to fit in a 32 page picture book. Her 400 page novel provides a great deal more information, but also lauds Ruth Harkness a bit much for my own cynical taste. I can overlook this as I supplemented my reading with other accounts of Ruth Harkness’ deterioration and death at 46.

Kate Kelly on the web site America Comes Alive highlights Ruth Harkness as an Influential Woman. America Comes Alive! is a site Kate Kelly created to share little-known stories of America’s past. She wrote, “When I selected Ruth Harkness for the 2012 “Inspirational Women” list, most descriptions were of a “socialite-turned-explorer who brought home the first living panda.”  As I read in greater depth there was much more that was unsaid regarding the well-being of wildlife as well as the life of Ruth Harkness. Her life tells a particular story of her time.  I was captivated, though it certainly was not what I expected!”

What does it take to motivate anyone, male or female, to leave their comfort zone and achieve something no one else has ever done? Ruth McCombs Harkness was a New York City fashion designer and a socialite. She had been friends with her husband William Harkness for ten years but married to him only two weeks before he left on a mission to bring back the first live giant panda. Since William had already successfully brought back Komodo dragons, it was a shock for Ruth Harkness to learn that while William was delayed in China, he died of throat cancer before setting out on his expedition.

As Croke states, “Left with a tiny fortune, Harkness decided to use it to follow in his footsteps, a stunning decision for a woman who wouldn’t even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed.”

Alicia Potter in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda manages to point out the criticism Ruth faced from nearly everyone when she announced her intentions to finish William’s expedition. In describing the “Panda-monium!” that occurred when Mrs. Harkness arrived in America carrying the panda in her arms, Alica Potter simply vindicates Ruth Harkness’ bravery and determination by stating:

“None of these newspaper stories called Mrs. Harkness crazy. Or foolish. Or reckless. They called her a “woman explorer”.”

Potter downplays much of the conflicts Ruth faced; although, she does acknowledge in the author’s note how our values and ideas towards animal conservation have changed. Since our story ends with Su Lin finding a home at the Brookfield Zoo, and Ruth Harkness finding a home in the “rugged, beautiful mountains of faraway China”, the chronology of events provided important follow-up details. Since I wrote my very first research paper on the giant panda in elementary school, I have been intrigued by this animal that was thought to be mythical even in most of China.

The giant panda became known to the Western world in 1869 when a French missionary Pere Armand David sent a dead pelt to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1929 Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt (sons of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) killed a giant panda which was then stuffed and exhibited at the Chicago Field Museum. Between that time and Ruth Harkness’ journey, twelve well-staffed and equipped professional expeditions to China failed to collect a single live specimen.  How did Ruth Harkness expect to succeed where they had failed? Somehow with her 22 bags of luggage and her guide Quentin Young, her expedition succeeded. There were rumors and innuendos to be faced, but Ruth’s achievements stood.

Even when women achieved milestones in exploration and adventure, they often could not receive the benefits. Deborah Watson-Novacek notes  “The adoration of the American public did not help Ruth overcome the chauvinism of the all-male institutions in the field of science and exploration, however. Many institutions snubbed her before the Explorers Club did her the “honor” of being the first women allowed to attend a dinner with the “gentlemen.” It should be noted, however, that the Club listed Su-Lin, not Harkness, as their guest of honor for the evening.”

Other sources I explored after reading this picture book include:

“Honest, Fair, Courageous and Strong: Four Picture Books Starring Real-Life Heroines” by CANDACE FLEMING Published: March 9, 2012 New York Times Sunday Book Review which reviews Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Fleming states “Sweet’s mixed-media images, which incorporate maps, handmade paper and delicate watercolor drawings, give the book the feel of a travel journal — a wonderful way of accompanying Harkness on her journey.”

The web page A Woman’s Bridge has an article on April 15, 2011, “Ruth Harkness and the Giant Panda” by Yoon Joung Lee. The mission of A Woman’s Bridge Foundation, established in 2009, was to create a sense of unity, vision, and purpose among women as a community of professionals, wives, mothers, and simply as people. “Women must reach out to each other more to value and protect each other whether as housewives or as corporate executives. We create partnerships for women in need, particularly those in local area shelters, and help raise supplies and awareness for local area women’s’ shelters and services. We also establish dialogue to further thought on national and international women’s’ issues.”

While searching for Ruth Harkness’ obituary, I found instead the obituary for Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young who is the namesake for the panda Ruth Harkness brought to America.

“In the 1930s, Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New York nightclub owner, morphed into one of the first female explorers to venture into the part of China devastated by last week’s earthquake.” (Earthquake referred to was the Sichuan province 2008 earthquake

Mrs. Young was believed to be the first American female explorer to enter the Tibetan-Himalayan region.  San Francisco Chronicle

World Wildlife Foundation In 2004, the results of the most comprehensive survey of China’s giant panda population revealed that there are nearly 1,600 pandas in the wild, over 40 percent more animals than previously thought to exist. These findings came from a four-year-long study of pandas and their habitat carried out by the State Forestry Administration of China and WWF. In Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter states in the end notes that there are approximately 2,500 giant pandas in the world. I do wonder about this discrepancy.

Facts from the Brookfield Zoo history of the Giant Panda: The Brookfield Zoo was the first zoo in the world to have a giant panda. The Brookfield Zoo was formally opened on June 30, 1934. Su Lin (male) was born approximately in September 1936. His name means “A Little Bit of Something Precious” in Chinese. He was captured by Ruth Harkness in the bamboo forests of the Szechuan mountains of southwestern China on November 9, 1936. Su Lin came to the Brookfield Zoo on February 8, 1937. He choked on an oak stick, developed complications from an infection, and died in April, 1938.  The Brookfield Zoo had a Giant Panda Zoo from 1937-1953.

Panda Cam’s and Links:

None of these sources provides all the answers I seek. They provide “pieces of the puzzle” or “strands of life’s weavings”, glimpses into the past, but mainly more questions. Isn’t the study of history simply the refining of our questions and the rebuilding of our knowledge structures? We are constantly changing as we learn. Our questions change as we change.

I still ponder why some people in history explore more and what qualities they possess that enable them to achieve more than others. I am excited each time I discover a new gem like Mrs. Harkness and the Panda because I know authors will continue to create new biographies to try to answer these questions – and maybe provoke a few more in the process.

Be sure to check out the School Library Journal review which states: This is a gorgeous book. The illustrations are a combination of small and large watercolor drawings, background collages using decorative Chinese papers, floral prints, maps, and Chinese lettering, as well as a few photographs. This little gem will be perfect for one-on-one sharing and for those second-grade biography assignments. It’s simply stunning.–Ieva Bates, Ann Arbor District Library, MI

The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal by: Vicki Croke

Recent posts for Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History include:

March 27th Passing it On– the book Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper

March 26th  Not just pretty and pink: the hatching of Goosebottom Books

March 25th Stitching Stories in the Ring 

March 24th  Blue Thread, Five Sisters, and Woman Suffrage

March 23rd The Firefly Letters

March 22nd The Other Mozart

March 21st Apparelled in Honor: The Story of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Early posts this month were listed here at Practically Paradise.

Topics for Women's History Month

  • Posted on March 20, 2012 at 7:54 AM

Are you following the KidLit Celebrates Women’s History Month posts? Here are some of the most recent post topics:

March 20 Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa and Book Giveaway!

March 19 A Q&A with Deborah Kogan Ray: Sarah Winnemucca, Paiute Princess

March 18 Beryl Markham: Feminist Hero? or Heroic Female?

March 17 Joan of Arc: an early feminist

March 16 Before Girls Could Play

March 15 What I Learned from Emily and Georgia

March 14 Women in the Footnotes of History by Sylvia Branzei-Velasquez

March 13 Ancient Queens and Modern “Sluts”

March 12 “Failure Is Impossible”: My Hero Susan B. Anthony

March 11 Margaret Knight, aka “Lady Edison”

March 10 Role Models

March 9 Margaret Chase Smith — Independence of Thought

March 8 Women in Science – Trailblazers Before the 20th Century

March 7 (Un)Celebrated Women of 2012

March 6 A Place at the Campfire

March 5 Emily and Carlo by Marty Rhodes Figley

March 4 Annie Sullivan: Miss Spitfire

March 3 Every-Day Dress-Up

March 2  Writing about Wangari Maathai

March 1 Stopping by Seneca Falls

I continue to be amazed and humbled by the achievements of these women, but also about the ability of these bloggers and authors who make our history so vitally relevant and important. Thank you to everyone who has posted.