Margo Thomas and her husband, Donald, of Westerville, have not only watched their daughter grow up to marry a Mercer County farm boy and give birth to three beautiful kids; they have watched her become an award-winning author.
“I’m thrilled,” Thomas said, trying to fight back tears. “She always had a journal and she was always writing.”
Houts, a Mercer County Farm Bureau member, wrote about a young girl coming of age by rearing and relinquishing a beloved steer at a county fair. Her book has sold thousands of copies and is now in its third printing.
The Beef Princess of Practical County has won the International Reading Association Children’s Book Award among other awards.
This labor of love came from Houts’ passion to write a story that lived in her heart. Houts’ daughter, Olivia, proved to be the catalyst.
Her experience showing a steer at the Mercer County Fair two years in a row proved to be an emotional journey for both mother and daughter.
“The first year Olivia showed at the fair she was in the feeder calf category,” Houts said.
“The second year she knew she was going to have to sell the steer. The fair is in August and starting about May she started crying every night.”
For months, Olivia, now a student at Ohio State University, wasn’t sure she could go through with giving up her animal after the county fair was over.
“It was a big deal,” Houts said. “She was losing her hair (from stress) and went through a phase where she refused to eat meat. It was so emotional, watching my child’s heartbreak.”
But, come fair day, she told her mother “I don’t want you to talk to me.” She put her game-face on and headed off to the fair with her dad, Mark.
Houts knew then it was time to tell a story about what life on a livestock farm is really like, in a way that was relatable to all.
“Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books,” she said. “But it is not a good example of really telling the truth about animal agriculture.”
She wanted to tell a true but fun tale about the hard work, pride and life lessons learned by children raised on a farm with livestock.
Her husband, a second generation farmer, was her research specialist.
Her story caught the eye of editors in New York at Random House. She submitted Beef Princess to a Random House contest and, though no one was declared a winner, her manuscript was selected for further review.
It was a whirlwind two years of editing and polishing before the book was published in 2009. To date it has sold more than 12,000 copies.
Now she tells the story of becoming an author and of real life on a farm to hundreds of children each year in schools all over the Midwest. Her second book, also about a farm family, takes place in Denmark—a place near and dear to her heart, where Houts spent six months after college through the International 4-H Youth Exchange. It is called Winterfrost and is in the editing stage with Candlewick Press.
Houts’ daughter, Maggie, 14, is now living the life of Libby Ryan (the heroine of Beef Princess). She is passionate about the farm life, and on the day she was interviewed, was anxiously awaiting the birth of goat kids that one day will be shown and sold at the county fair.
She’s her mom’s biggest fan.
Kelli Milligan Stammen is a freelance writer from Grove City.
Children’s Literature Award
Each year, Ohio Farm Bureau’s Children’s Literature Award honors a book and author whose work embodies an agricultural theme and contributes to American literature. This year’s winner was The Guardian Team: On the Job with Rena and Roo, which introduces young readers to a dog and burro team at work on a sheep ranch. The American Farm Bureau Foundation has created an educator’s guide as a companion piece to the book; the guide takes elementary students through various learning activities. Visit the foundation’s website to learn more.