Ho, Minfong 1951–

views updated

Ho, Minfong 1951–

PERSONAL: Born January 7, 1951, in Rangoon, Burma; daughter of Rih-Hwa (a businessman) and Lienfung (a chemist and writer; maiden name, Li) Ho; married John Value Dennis, Jr. (a rural sociologist and agronomist), December 20, 1976; children: Danfung, MeiMei, Christopher. Education: Attended Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan, 1968–69; Cornell University, B.A. (honors), 1973; M.F.A., 1980. Religion: Agnostic. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, hiking, growing things.

ADDRESSES: Home—893 Cayuga Heights Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850; fax: 607-272-3335. Agent—Edward Necarsulmer IV, McIntosh and Otis, Inc., 310 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017. E-mail[email protected]; [email protected]

CAREER: Writer. Straits Times newspaper, Singapore, journalist, 1974–75; Chiengmai University, Chiengmai, Thailand, lecturer in English, 1975–76; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, English literature teaching assistant, 1978–80; Catholic Relief Services, Thai-Cambodian border, nutritionist and relief worker, 1980; Singapore University, writer-in-residence, 1983. Also presenter of various writing workshops in middle schools and high schools in Ithaca, NY, and international schools in China, Poland, Switzerland, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, 1990–2006.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, PEN America.

AWARDS, HONORS: First prize from Council of Interracial Books for Children, 1975, for Sing to the Dawn; first prize, Annual Short Story Contest of Singapore, Ministry of Culture, Singapore, 1982, and first prize, Annual Short Story Contest, AsiaWeek Magazine, Hong Kong, 1983, both for Tanjong Rhu; second place, prose section, Commonwealth Book Awards, Commonwealth Book Council, 1987, first prize, National Book Development Council of Singapore, 1988, Parents Choice Award, 1990, and Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association (ALA), Editor's Choice, Booklist, and Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, all 1991, and all for Rice without Rain; National Council on Social Studies/Children's Book Council (NCSS-CBC) Notable Children's Book in the Field of Social Studies and Best Books selection, Parents Magazine, both 1991, "Pick of the Lists," American Booksellers Association (ABA), Notable Children's Trade Books in the Language Arts, and Children's Book of Distinction, Hungry Mind Review, all 1992, all for The Clay Marble; Southeast-Asian Write Award, conferred by the Crown Prince of Thailand, 1996; Horn Book Fanfare, Notable Book designation, ALA, Children's Book of Distinction, Hungry Mind Review, and Caldecott Honor, all 1997, all for Hush!: A Thai Lullaby; Notable Book designation, ALA, Best Books selection, New York Public Library, and Children's Book of Distinction, Hungry Mind Review, all 1997, all for Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty; "Pick of the Lists," ABA, 1997, for Brother Rabbit: A Folktale from Cambodia.

WRITINGS:

Sing to the Dawn (for young adults), illustrated by Kwoncjan Ho, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1975.

Tanjong Rhu and Other Stories, Federal Press (Sin-gapore), 1986.

Rice without Rain (for young adults), Andre Deutsch (London, England), 1986, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1990.

The Clay Marble (for juveniles), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Saphan Ros) The Two Brothers (picture book for children), illustrated by Jean Tseng and Mousien Tseng, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1995.

Hush!: A Thai Lullaby (picture book for children), illustrated by Holly Meade, Orchard Books (London, England), 1996.

(Translator and compiler) Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty (picture book for children), illustrated by Jean and MouSien Tseng, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1996.

(With Saphan Ros) Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale (picture book for children), illustrated by Jennifer Hewitson, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1997.

Gathering the Dew (children's novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2003, published as The Stone Goddess, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek (picture book for children), illustrated by Holly Meade, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.

Ho's work has been anthologized in Starwalk, Silver, Burdett and Ginn (Morristown, NJ), 1989; Prizewinning Stories: Asian Fiction, Times Edition, 1991; Ripples: Short Stories, EPB Publishers, 1992; Tapestry: Selected Short Stories from Singapore, Heinemann,1992; Join In: An Anthology of Multicultural Short Stories, Dell (New York, NY), 1994; Battling Dragons, Heinemann, 1995; More than Half the Sky: Creative Writings, Times Books International, 1998; Stories in the Stepmother Tongue, Censored Books II; Critical Viewpoints, 1985–2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Scarecrow Press, 2002; Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories about Faith and Belief, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Simon & Schuster, 2002; My Grandmother's House, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003; and First Crossing: Stories about Teen Immigrants, edited by Donald R. Gallo, Candlewick (Cambridge, MA), 2004. Ho's work has also been translated into Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, and French.

ADAPTATIONS: Sing to the Dawn was adapted as a musical in 1996 for the Singapore Arts Festival. Ho co-wrote the libretto with Stephen Clark, music by Dick Lee, performed by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and published by Times Edition, 1996.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Motherless Malik, for Lothrop; Jataka Tales: A Selection of Buddha's Birth Stories; Surviving the Peace, a non-fiction book about the children born after 1975 now living in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, for Lothrop; Mosaic: An Anthology of Short Stories from Southeast Asia; Duty Free, a novel of Singapore in the 1840s; The Great Pond, a translation from the Thai novel by Thepsiri.

SIDELIGHTS: Minfong Ho, in award-winning novels such as Sing to the Dawn, Rice Without Rain, and The Clay Marble, presents realistic, non-romantic depictions of her native Southeast Asia. Characteristically focusing on strong female protagonists who interact with their families and friends against the backdrop of real events, she is often recognized for the sensitivity and understanding with which she treats the feelings of her characters, as well as for her depiction of Asian life and locale. Her books include stories for young adult readers and middle graders as well as picture books for younger children. In all of these works, Ho does not back off from harsher elements such as poverty and violent death, but she also weaves the theme of the stabilizing influence of family throughout her work.

Ho was born in Burma, grew up in both Singapore and Thailand and did most of her studying in English. She, therefore, is fluent in three languages: Chinese, Thai, and English. The resulting fragmentation, or "linguistic schizophrenia" as she terms it, has never been resolved for Ho. Though she writes in English, she feels that she has never been able to bridge the languages of her life.

At Cornell University, she began a short story that later became her first novel, Sing to the Dawn. "When I wrote Sing to the Dawn, it was in moments of homesickness during the thick of winter in upstate New York, when Thailand seemed incredibly far away," Ho once told CA. The original story describes how Dawan, a schoolgirl from a rural Thai village, encounters resistance from her father and brother when she wins a scholarship to the city high school. Ho submitted the work for the Council for Interracial Books for Children's annual short story contest and won the award for the Asian American Division of unpublished Third World Authors; she was then encouraged to enlarge the story into a novel. "The manuscript was later published (through no effort of mine)," Ho recalled for CA. "Suddenly a whole new dimension of writing opened to me: it became a communicative rather than a cathartic activity. I had always written, but now I would have readers!"

In writing Sing to the Dawn, Ho also saw the writing process as one that was inherently "a political expression," as she once wrote in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. "I had never enjoyed reading stories of Asia in my own childhood," the author added, and then noted: "Children's books about Thailand, China, Burma, etc. were invariably about princes and emperors and/or their elephants, peacocks and tigers. The few about village life portrayed it as idyllic and easy-going, full of kites and candles and festivals at the temples. This was not the Asia I knew, and I had resented the writers—usually white—who out of condescension and ignorance misrepresented these countries."

With Sing to the Dawn, Ho attempted to avoid these pitfalls and created a realistic story of Dawan, a Thai girl struggling to get an education. "The author's love of her native countryside is evident in her vivid descriptions," commented Cynthia T. Seybolt in a School Library Journal review of the book. Seybolt also noted that Dawan's story "provides a perspective on women's liberation far removed and much more important than breaking into the local Little League." Though many reviewers noted that this first novel was slow in parts because of frequent descriptive passages, a Kirkus Reviews critic maintained that, "underneath the delicate lotus imagery, this small, understated story is infused with passion and determination," such that Dawan confronts her battle for freedom and equality with a "rage so powerful" that it makes "this otherwise modest narrative vibrate." The book as illustrated by Ho's younger brother, Kwoncjan, and proceeds from its sales were used to help set up a nursing scholarship for village girls in Thailand.

In 1986, after starting a family, Ho returned to writing fiction, publishing Rice without Rain, a book that retells the experiences of another village girl in Thailand. Jinda is seventeen the summer when young intellectuals arrive in her remote village from Bangkok and encourage the men to form a rent resistance movement. Slowly the villagers, including Jinda's father, the headman, take up the rallying cry, and slowly too does Jinda fall in love with Ned, the leader of the student radicals. The military puts down the demonstrators in a bloody massacre and Jinda's father dies in prison. Ned and she part ways, he to join communist guerrillas fighting the government, and she to "grow things and be happy" in her village—the simpler path in life, the eternal way. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, maintained that though the book has violent and sometimes gritty passages, "the violence is quietly told, never exploited." School Library Journal contributor John Philbrook, despite finding some of the characters too "predictable," felt on the whole that Ho's novel "gives an interesting and at times absorbing glimpse of class struggle in the Thailand of the 1970s." Philbrook added: "Not a masterpiece, but a novel from an author to watch." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Rice without Rain "a valuable, memorable portrait of a little-known country."

In The Clay Marble, a book for middle grade readers, Ho again presents a strong female protagonist and employs the theme of family unity in the face of adversity. Twelve-year-old Dara journeys with her mother and older brother, Sarun, to the Thai border in search of food after the fall of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. At a refugee camp, Dara meets another Cambodian family and becomes fast friends with Jantu. When fighting breaks out between rival guerrilla factions, Dara and Jantu are cut off from their families. Surviving several adventures, the two are finally reunited with their families. Though some reviewers felt that Ho's characters lacked depth and that her language was at times too sophisticated for a twelve-year-old protagonist, many found, as did Maeve Visser Knoth in Horn Book, that Ho's story was "moving." Knoth noted that the book depicted a "people who have rarely had a voice in children's literature." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that Ho "shapes her story to dramatize political and humanitarian issues," and noted that the book was "touching, authentic" and "carefully wrought."

The Two Brothers, a picture book for young readers, was cowritten with Saphan Ros. The orphaned brothers Kem and Sem have grown up in a monastery. Leaving the monastery for the big world, Kem adheres to the abbot's parting words of advice and prospers, while Sem at first ignores the words of advice and leads the life of a peasant. Only after Sem remembers the abbot's words does his life turn around; he eventually becomes the king of Cambodia. "This entertaining picture book provides its own lively interpretation of one dramatic folktale from Cambodia," wrote Carolyn Phelan in a Booklist review of The Two Brothers. Margaret A. Chang, writing in the School Library Journal, concluded that it is a book "to value for its authentic setting, engaging story, and portrayal of one culture's take on the balance between choice and destiny."

Other picture books by Ho include Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty, her translations of sixteen short Tang Dynasty unrhymed poems, and Hush!: A Thai Lullaby, a bedtime tale that requests various animals including a lizard and monkey to be quiet and not disturb a sleeping baby. A Kirkus Reviews contributor dubbed Hush! a "charming, repetitive rhyme," and John Philbrook in the School Library Journal concluded that it is a "delightful, reassuring bedtime book with a unique setting." Reviewing Maples in the Mist, a Five Owls contributor noted that Ho's "translations are as clear and bright as the paintings" in this book that is "a successful example of contemporary picture book design." Karen L. Mac-Donald, writing in the School Library Journal, called the book a "beautiful anthology." Commenting on Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale, Horn Book reviewer Nancy Vasilakis asserted that "the back and forth between deceiver and deceived invests the tale with an unpredictability and kinetic edge that suits its theme well."

In Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek, Ho collaborates with illustrator Holly Meade to engage a father and daughter in a game of Jut-Ay, or peek-a-boo. In the course of the game the father encounters various animals, all of whom reunite when father and daughter find each other and the game is over. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the author produced "an engaging, repetitive rhyme." Wendy Lukehart, writing in the School Library Journal, called it "a delightful companion to Ho and Meade's Hush!

Ho's children's novel Gathering the Dew was also published as The Stone Goddess. The story focuses on the Sokha family as they flee Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge (communist guerrillas) take over Cambodia. The book follows the family as they work in refugee camps and try to make it to America. In the process, sisters Nakri and Teeda struggle to stay alive with Teeda eventually succumbing to malaria. Susan P. Bloom wrote in Horn Book: "Ho captures vividly the disorientation of so much plenty after so much want" as Nakri faces a new a life without her sister. In a review in Booklist, Linda Perkins called the story a "compassionate portrait of a young Cambodian refugee." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote: "The author takes on this shocking slice of world history with the appropriate amount of detail and sensitivity for a young audience."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 28, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 131-134.

Ho, Minfong, Rice Without Rain, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1990.

Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

Saint James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July, 1990, Hazel Rochman, review of Rice without Rain, p. 2083; March 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Two Brothers, p. 1244; May 1, 1997, Karen Morgan, review of Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale, p. 1499; March 1, 2003, Linda Perkins, review of Gathering the Dew, p. 1206.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1975, review of Sing to the Dawn, p. 46; June, 1990, review of Rice without Rain, p. 241; December, 1991, review of The Clay Marble, p. 92; April, 1996, review of Hush! A Thai Lullaby, p. 266; May, 1997, review of Brother Rabbit, 324.

Five Owls, January-February, 1997, review of Maples in the Mist, p. 57.

Horn Book, November, 1990, p. 749; January-February, 1992, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of The Clay Marble, p. 71; July, 1995, p. 471; May-June, 1997, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Brother Rabbit, pp. 333-334; May-June, 2003, Susan P. Bloom, review of Gathering the Dew, p. 348; November-December, 2004, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek, p. 697.

Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 8, No. 7, 1977, Minfong Ho, "Writing the Sound of One Hand Clapping," pp. 5, 21.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1975, review of Sing to the Dawn, p. 604; May 1, 1991, review of Rice without Rain, p. 649; October 1, 1991, review of The Clay Marble, p. 1287; February 1, 1996, review of Hush!, p. 227; February 1, 2003, review of Gathering the Dew, p. 231; March 1, 2003, review of In My Grandmother's House, p. 380; September 1, 2004, review of Peek!, p. 867.

Kliatt, September, 2005, Claire Rosser, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 20.

New York Times Book Review, October 7, 1990, Linda Wertheimer, review of Rice without Rain, p. 30; April 26, 1992, review of The Clay Marble, p. 25; August 13, 1995, review of The Two Brothers, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly, March 25, 1996, review of Hush!, p. 82; April 14, 1997, review of Brother Rabbit, p. 75.

School Library Journal, March, 1976, Cynthia T. Seybolt, review of Sing to the Dawn, p. 104; September, 1990, John Philbrook, review of Rice without Rain, p. 250; June, 1995, Margaret A. Chang, review of The Two Brothers, p. 102; March, 1996, John Philbrook, review of Hush!, p. 175; September, 1996, Karen L. MacDonald, review of Maples in the Mist,; March, 2003, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Gathering the Dew, p. 233; October, 2003, review of The Stone Goddess, p. S60; October, 2004, Wendy Lukehart, review of Peek!, p. 115; March, 2005, Kathleen T. Isaacs, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 69.

Times Educational Supplement, February 13, 1987, review of Rice without Rain, p. 44; September 22, 1989, review of Rice without Rain, p. 30.

ONLINE

Minfong Ho Home Page, http://members.authorsguild.net/minfong/ (December 28, 2005).

Papertigers.org, http://www.papertigers.org/ (September 6, 2003), Lee Galda, review of Gathering the Dew.