Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Panda Problem (Deborah Underwood)

Illustrator:  Hannah Marks

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Post Modern Picture Book (Metafiction)

Publisher Summary: 
Every story needs a problem.  But Panda doesn’t have a problem.  Unless Panda IS the problem.

First Lines:
Once upon a time, there was a panda who lived in a beautiful bamboo grove.
But the panda had a BIG problem.
Excuse me?

Memorable Moment:
Oh, can’t they?
What if suddenly there were…

Author Deborah Underwood knows how to create a witty picture book. I became a fan after reading the Here Comes the … Cat series.  Her creative twists and turns as well as her memorable characters make for an entertaining reading experience.  The Panda Problem is no different.

Along with many readers—young and old—I love pandas. Underwood’s panda character is full of cheeky fun.  Though he is the main character (at least in theory), he does everything he can to undermine the story.  At the same time, he is creating the very story he attempts to usurp (more about that later). 

On a simple level, this picture book introduces children to the parts of a story—setting, character, plot, conflict, and resolution—in an engaging manner.  Characterization can be explored through the witty dialogue between the narrator and the panda. Suspense is craftily used to keep listeners predicting what will happen next. Underwood often subverts expectations with inventive surprises and humorous irony.  

The difference between realism and fantasy is another layer.  It is real that pandas live in a bamboo grove.  They eat lots of bamboo.  Pandas cannot live in Antartica.  However, elements like jellybean rain and a banjo-playing bear are fantasy.  The seamless blend of the two elements—fantasy and reality—is an ideal teaching opportunity for educators and parents. 

The story can be read as just a fun picture book.  However, older students can look at it more closely because it is deceptively complex. 

The Panda Problem subtly pokes fun at the cliché picture book—a story with a character that has a problem and then the problem worsens, but in the end everything resolves itself.  Like many post-modern books, it questions this plot development assumption while also sticking with it (somewhat) often including absurd elements, such as aliens and jellybean rain. 

Educators and parents can use it as an example of metafiction, fiction about fiction in which the author knowingly draws attention to the fact that it is fiction.  Older students (through college age) can dig into not only what metafiction is but what purpose it has and how it reflects post-modern attitudes about literature and life. For instance, The Panda Problem uses metafiction to epitomize the post-modern idea: Life is uncertain and truth is relative, but we might as well have some fun with them. 

Witty.  Subversive. Thought-provoking.  The Panda Problem is a must read for all ages! 

Lesson Plan Activities and Extension Ideas Recap:
  • Parts of a Story: Use to introduce or reinforce the key parts of a story.  Then, identify the parts of this story.  Debate--Who is the real protagonist?
  • Predicting Skills: Periodically stop to allow children to guess what is going to happen next and why they think so.
  • Irony:  What are some examples of irony?  What type of irony is it?  What is the significance of each example?
  • Suspense:  How does the author incorporate suspense?
  • Fantasy vs. Reality:  Discuss which story elements are based on fantasy and which are on reality.
  • Post-Modernism:  Demonstrates post-modern elements on a simple but complex level. For more post-modern picture books, click HERE.  (More post-modern picture book posts coming soon.)
  • Metafiction:  Can be used up to college age along with novels (like Don Quixote) or short stories ("The Kugelmass Episode") that incorporate metafiction.  For more metafiction examples, click HERE.


  1. Ooh, I'm a Deborah Underwood fan and I can't wait to check this one out. I love a witty and subversive PB!

  2. I have this one on my shelf. It's such a creative way to teach story writing. Awesome book!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Okay, let me try again ...

    My interest was piqued when I saw it had a panda on the cover, but then I was sold when you said it could easily be used to discuss the parts of a story. I'm going to put a library hold on it right now.

  5. Wow! interesting concept. I love Pandas so I'm off to see if I can find this in my local library. Thanks for sharing.

  6. This is such a funny book. Thanks for the great review Diane.

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  8. This book looks so cute. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I love pandas. :)

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The Panda Problem (Deborah Underwood)

Title:  The Panda Problem Author :   Deborah Underwood Illustrator :   Hannah Marks Target Ages :   5 and up Genre :   ...