7 minute read

Jo Harper (1932–) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights

Born 1932, in Lockney, TX; Education: Texas Tech University, B.A., 1951, M.A., 1964; Pennsylvania State University, doctoral study, 1970–71; also attended Columbia University, 1977, Escuela Internacional Sampere (Madrid, Spain), 1974, Inter-American University (Saltillo, Mexico), 1978, Cuernavaca Language School (Cuernavaca, Mexico), 1979, and University of Texas at Austin.


Agent—Erin Murphy, 2700 Woodlands Village, No. 300-458, Flagstaff, AZ 86001-7127.


Plainview, TX, Public Schools, junior-high-school librarian, 1951–52, first-grade teacher for Spanish-speaking children, 1959–60, high school teacher of English, Spanish, and humanities, 1964–68; Texas A &I University, Kingsville, instructor in English, 1968–70; Rockingham Community College, Wentworth, NC, instructor in English and Spanish, 1971–77; Armstrong State College, Savannah, GA, assistant professor of English and Spanish, and foreign student adviser, 1977–80; Texas Southern University, Houston, director of inten-Jo Harpersive English for foreign students, 1980–84; University of Houston, Houston, lecturer in English, 1984–96; Spring Branch Education Center, Houston, teacher of English to at-risk high school students, 1996–; Houston Community College, adjunct instructor in English, 1999–. Museum of Fine Arts, senior docent; Houston Arboretum, volunteer; storyteller at local elementary schools.

Honors Awards

Willa Cather Award, 1999, for Prairie Dog Pioneers; Western Heritage Award, 2001, for Delfino's Journey.


The Harpers' Voices—Caves and Cowboys: Family Song Book, illustrated by Robert Boustany, photographs by George R. Jefferson, JCH Press, 1988.

Pals, Potions, and Pixies: Family Songbook, illustrated by Robert Boustany, photographs by George R. Jefferson, JCH Press, 1988.

Jalapeño Hal, illustrated by Jennifer Beck Harris, Simon &Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

Outrageous, Bodacious Boliver Boggs!, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi, Simon &Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.

Deaf Smith: Scout, Spy, Texas Hero, illustrated by Virginia Rhoeder, Eakin Publications (Austin, TX), 1996.

Bigfoot Wallace: Texas Ranger and Mier Survivor, Eakin Publications (Austin, TX), 1997.

The Legend of Mexicatl, Turtle Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(With daughter, Josephine Harper) Prairie Dog Pioneers, Turtle Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Delfino's Journey, Texas Tech University Press (Lubbock, TX), 2001.

Ollie Jolly, Rodeo Clown, illustrated by Amy Meissner, WestWinds Press (Portland, OR), 2002.

Mayor Jalapeño Hal, illustrated by Joel Cook and Vuthy Kuon, Eakin Publications (Austin, TX), 2003.

(With others) Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Runner, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2004.

(With Josephine Harper) Finding Daddy: A Story of the Great Depression, illustrated by Ron Mazellan, Turtle Books (New York, NY), 2005.

(With Josephine Harper) Teresa's Journey (sequel to Delfino's Journey), Texas Tech University Press (Lubbock, TX), 2006.

(With Josephine Harper) Mier Men, Eakin Press (Austin, TX), 2006.

I Could Eat You Up!, illustrated by Kay Chorao, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to magazines and newspapers.

Harper's books have been translated into Spanish.

Work in Progress

Choosing Comanche (working title), for Turtle Books; White Indian (working title).


Jo Harper, a professional storyteller and award-winning children's author, has always enjoyed spinning tales. Along with writing picture books, Harper has also written novels for slightly older readers, including Delfino's Journey, which won the Western Heritage award for best juvenile book in 2001. She has also collaborated on several original titles with her daughter, writer Josephine Harper. Their work together includes the Willa Cather Award-winning picture book Prairie Dog Pioneers.

Harper started her career in children's books with two collections of songs designed for family sing alongs. Her first picture book, Jalapeño Hal, tells the story of a cowboy with such "mean breath" that he can cause steam to rise from his mouth. This talent comes in handy when a town is in need of rain; by convincing everyone to munch on jalapeños, Hal manages to get everyone's breath to rise, eventually putting enough moisture into the air that it begins to rain. The story is told, in true Texas style, by Hal's sidekick, a young boy named Kit, and "will satisfy latter-day Davy Crocketts and encourage a craving for the piquant," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Moving from tall tale to more traditional folk tale, Harper is also the author of The Legend of Mexicatl. Based on Mexican folklore, the story focuses on a boy named Mexicatl, whose destiny is to lead his people to a place where they can find both water and peace. "Harper's telling will hold children's interest," assured Ilene Cooper in a review for Booklist.

With daughter Josephine Harper, Harper retells a chapter from her own family history in Prairie Dog Pioneers. Young Mae Dean, an ancestor of Harper's, does not understand why her family had to move to Texas, and she is even more confused when, on the long trip south, her father seems more concerned about their possessions than the family members themselves. When Papa finally explains the dangers and the benefits of the new place they will call home, Mae Dean begins to understand the reason for the family's sacrifices. Calling the tale a "quiet story," Kay Weisman wrote in Booklist that Prairie Dog Pioneers "is a good choice for primary story hours."

Mother and daughter team up again on Finding Daddy: A Story of the Great Depression, the story of young Bonnie whose despairing father leaves the family during the economic depression of the 1930s. Determined to get her father back home, Bonnie goes out searching for him, in an effort to give the man back his faith in himself and his belief that he can support his family. The Harpers weave period music into the telling of the tale reflecting Bonnie's use of music to reach her father. "Adults will want to share this with children and sing the old songs," wrote Hazel Rochman in Booklist, while Suzanne Myers Harold noted in School Library Journal that Finding Daddy "offers a way to make history more personal."

Delfino's Journey, one of Harper's few novels for middle-grade readers, is a timely novel that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Delfino. Feeling the responsibility of being the man in the family, he feels that the best way to help his pregnant sister to give birth to her child safely is to move her from Mexico north into Texas. She has already lost one child, and Delfino is determined to help her make sure she does not lose another. With his cousin Salvador, the teen works out a plan to cross the Rio Grande into the land of promise. The book features Aztec legends and culture and the Nahuatl language, Delfino's native tongue. Roger Leslie, writing in Booklist considered the novel "an exciting and emotionally satisfying read."

Though most of Harper's books books draw on her background growing up in Texas or are based on Mexican legends and current issues, she is also the author of a fictional biography of Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic track star who grew up in the 1940s. In Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Runner Harper traces Rudolph's history: stricken by polio, which twisted her leg when she was a child, she overcame the illness to become a medal-winning athlete. The facts in the book are presented in a fictional manner to draw in young readers, and the technique "works because it never pretends to be documented biography," according to Hazel Rochman in Booklist.

Harper once told SATA: "I grew up in the Texas Panhandle riding horses, eating jalapeno peppers, and spinning whoppers. I used to go with my grandfather to auctions and bid on cattle as they ran through the ring. When I was seventeen I got my first car and drove to Mexico City. Even though these are miles and years away from me now, the Panhandle and things Mexican still permeate my work. Jalapeño Hal and Outrageous, Bodacious Boliver Boggs! are Texas tall tales. Deaf Smith, Bigfoot Wallace, and Mier Men are about Texas heroes. Caves and Cowboys and Pals, Potions, and Pixies are printed in both English and Spanish, as are several of my other books. The Legend of Mexicatl is the story of the legendary founder of the Aztecs, and Prairie Dog Pioneers is based on a true story about going up the Cap Rock in a covered wagon and living in a dugout on the prairie."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, October 1, 1993, Sheilamae O'Hara, review of Jalapeño Hal, p. 352; April 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of The Legend of Mexicatl, p. 1448; September 15, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of Prairie Dog Pioneers, p. 237; April 15, 2001, Roger Leslie, review of Delfino's Journey, p. 1545; May 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Runner, p. 1619; July, 2005, review of Finding Daddy: A Story of the Great Depression, p. 1925.

Black Issues Book Review, May-June, 2004, Suzanne Rust, "Learning as We Climb: Stories about the Civil Rights Movement for Young Readers," pp. 58-61.

Canadian Review of Materials, March 14, 2003, review of Ollie Jolly, Rodeo Clown.

Children's Book Review Service, spring, 1996, p. 134.

Publishers Weekly, July 26, 1993, review of Jalapeño Hal, p. 70; September 21, 1998, review of Prairie Dog Pioneers, p. 85.

School Library Journal, March, 1994, Claudie Cooper, review of Jalapeño Hal, p. 198; April, 1996, p. 110; October, 2004, review of The Legend of Mexicatl, p. S22; September, 2005, Suzanne Myers Harold, review of Finding Daddy, p. 171.


Humboldt Children's Author Festival 2005 Web site, http://www.authorfest.org/ (March 28, 2006), profile of Harper.

Jo Harper Home Page, http://home.earthlink.net/∼joharper (March 28, 2006).

Additional topics

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