By Matt Reese
It is no secret that the general public is disconnected from agriculture and plenty has been said about the need for those involved with agriculture to share their farm-related stories with others. Michelle Houts did just that and her story has been published into an award-winning book — The Beef Princess of Practical County.
“This particular story came from my kids and their friends showing at the county fair. Not coming from a livestock background myself, I really had no idea how much time went into raising a market animal and how much emotion went into letting go of it,” Houts said. “I realized how much hard work, courage and dedication and guts went into getting out there and showing the animal and then parting with it at the end. Nobody has really told that story in a middle grade novel form. Charlotte’s Web is a great county fair story, but in the end, it doesn’t tell the story of raising livestock and what the kids learn when they raise market animals. I thought it would make a great story, but I never thought I would write a novel.”
Houts grew up in a suburb of Columbus and met the farmer of her dreams in college. They were married and moved back to his Mercer County farm where she has learned to love life in rural Ohio. The have three children on the farm where they produce grain, cattle, hogs and goats.
“Sometimes people who have been on the farm all of their lives take things for granted. I always love it when relatives or friends come visit that have no farm experience. It is so much fun to see them see these things for the first time,” Houts said. “I love sharing with them how big the fields are, how far you can see and new baby goats. It reminds me of the first time I saw these things.”
This love of sharing farm life resonates throughout her book that farm folks can relate to and non-farmers find intriguing.
“I either get e-mails from moms or young kids saying that, ‘you have written my life I show hogs or I show cattle’ or ‘you hit the nail on the head. We love our county fair. It is the highlight of our summer.’ Or I get just the opposite. People tell me that they had no idea what the book was going to be about when they picked it up. They had never been to a county fair or seen a steer show. It has been fun sharing this with those who think I wrote it about their life and those who totally cannot relate to it.”
The drama of a county fair makes for an engaging story, and also an informative tale with a positive agricultural message.
“I feel like even though my mission was to write a compelling piece of literature that children want to read, I am glad that it has also provided a positive image of animal agriculture, especially in Ohio where so much is going on about the negative side of animal agriculture,” she said. “I am glad I could show that most of Ohio agriculture is connected to a family farm and people who are doing their best to care for the animals and the environment.”
After the idea for the book came to her, Houts simply started writing.
“It took about four months to get it down on paper the first time. I spent several more months editing it and getting it into shape to send out. I sent it to one publisher and was rejected. The next publisher I sent it to was Random House and they contacted me and told me that they would like to purchase the manuscript,” she said. “That was in April of 2007 and in April of 2009 it came out. It was very exciting because it is very hard to get into some of the major publishers, but I had done a lot of homework about which editors were interested in what. It was still a shock though when Random House offered a contract.”
Houts got another pleasant surprise with her book last April when it received the 2010 International Reading Association Children’s Book Award for Intermediate Fiction.
“That generated a lot of recognition in the library world and in schools,” she said. “Then last June, Scholastic bought the paperback rights coming out in Scholastic Books flyer this fall.”
Also this fall, The Beef Princess of Practical County is a finalist for the Buckeye Children’s Book Award. Books are nominated by Ohio’s school children and voting is going on now through Nov. 10 at www.bcbookaward.info/nominations.html.
Houts is hoping to translate this initial success into an expanding literary career that includes more novels and some picture books, many which will have similar rural themes.
“A lot of people say that you should write about what you know. That is a very comfortable thing for me to do,” she said. “Whether I seek out to do that or not, a lot of the stories that I write have an agricultural or rural theme. I am working on a second novel and I have several manuscripts that I am working of for picture books.”
The success of her book has allowed Houts to talk to students in classrooms around the state and the country to share her agricultural experiences with even more people.
“I have really enjoyed getting out into the schools and talking to the kid about the books and their writing process,” she said.
The Beef Princess of Practical County is available at almost all bookstores and at Amazon.com. For more about Houts and her books, visit www.michellehouts.com.
Some of Michelle’s inspiration for the book came from while watching her children show at the Mercer Co. Fair. Heather visited with her at the fair about her very popular book.
Michelle has graciously provided us with a signed copy of her book, The Beef Princess of Practical County, to giveaway. Leave a comment below letting us know the best or favorite book you’ve ever read for your chance to win it. A winner will randomly be chosen on at 5pm October 8th.