Sunday, December 28, 2014

Interview with Michelle Houts

Michelle Houts by Hilde Garcia

MICHELLE HOUTS is the award-winning author of The Beef Princess of Practical County and its sequel, The Practical County Drama Queen.  Her current releases are Winterfrost and Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek, and her first two picture books will be out in the near, near future.

Also, as the result of excellent networking at SCBWI’s 2010 Summer Conference (if I can do it, you can do it), Michelle is also my dear friend.

HG:  Michelle, you’re a mom, a speech pathologist, and a farmer's wife… how did writing fall into your not-so-busy life?

MH:    Writing fell into my busy life before any of those things fell into my life because I loved writing as a child, and I loved to write as a teen, and I loved writing when I was an adult.  I just never thought I could make a go of it as a career.  So I waited until I was married and had three children before I attempted to write a novel and submit it for publication. 

HG:  What made you write it?

MH:    The Beef Princess of Practical County was my first published novel, and I was inspired to write it because I watched my own daughter and other young people showing and selling their livestock at our county fair. 

I submitted it to the Random House Middle Grade First Novel Contest and no winner was chosen that year.  They did, however, pull my manuscript as a finalist and asked me if I was willing to revise it. 

And of course I said, “Yeah.”

And after revising it, they made me an offer.

HG:  When we met at the 2010 SCBWIConference and I kidnapped you into an evening of networking, what was going through your mind?

Oh, my gosh! I was so grateful to meet someone from California who knew people and wasn’t afraid to go up to them and say hi.  You introduced me to so many people. We’ve been buds ever since.

HG:     Well, I know that you were thrilled that someone not related to you bought your book.  And I knew you were a kindred spirit from “howdy.”

MH:    That was a pretty exciting night.

HG:     Yes it was.  Especially because I didn’t find out you were the author until after I had purchased your book!

MH:    No, what was cool was your Principal’s Book Club.

HG:     Oh yes, my principal wanted to start a book club and she asked me for advice on possible book choices.  I suggested your book, and she read it and agreed!  It couldn't have been a better launch.  We had over 100 kids sign up, from Kinder through 6th grade.

MH:    I remember you calling me and asking, “How would you like to come to LA and meet all the kids in the Book Club?  And it’s next week, but I’m pretty sure I can convince the PTA to fund it.”

HG:     Never mind that this wasn’t on the PTA’s agenda, and we were having this conversation the midnight before the PTA’s meeting was scheduled.

MH:    I was floored when you told me you had pulled it off and the expenditure had been approved.

HG:     Me too!  What did that feel like?  To have an entire elementary school gasp when you filled them in on what was coming down the pike in the Practical County sequel?

MH:    That was fantastic. It was the first school visit where the whole school had read my novel, so the enthusiasm was incredible. And then the excitement for the sequel was the inspiration I needed not to give up and get it published.

HG:     I remember you didn’t have a publisher at the time, and I said I would publish it myself if someone didn’t jump at the chance.  I wanted the sequel.  All your readers did.

MH:    Yep.

HG:     And I told you when you got it published, I would help you get it sold.  The orders poured in from the whole school.

MH:    My local bookstore was thrilled with the orders.

HG:     You now have two other novels out.  What inspired you to write Winterfrost?  

Winterfrost is based on Danish folklore.  I lived in Denmark for six months when I was younger, and I loved its Christmas traditions, especially the ones that center around the Nisse, the little Christmas gnome.  And so came the inspiration for that story.

HG:     Of course, in your whirlwind tour of LA, you had to make a stop at my kids’ little league game and you couldn’t say no, being a baseball fan.  Well that, and that I had the car.  So tell me about Kammie on First.

MH:    Kammie was such an exciting project because she is an Ohio girl and I am an Ohio girl.  She was a Cincinnati Reds fan, and I was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  She was one of the people that inspired the Geena Davis character in A League of Their Own and of course that’s one of the best movies in the world.

HG:     Agreed.

MH:    And when it came time to pick a subject for a middle grade biography, she stood out for many reasons.  She played 10 years for the Rockford Peaches and she was a leader on and off the field.  Not only a great player, but a great person.

HG:     But why a biography?  All your titles thus far had been fiction.

MH:    I was approached by the Ohio University Press to write a biography, the first in a series of middle grade biographies they were going to publish. We got to talking and we both agreed on Dottie [Kamenshek].  I couldn't refuse!

HG:     Just so you know, I was secretly jealous.  What an amazing opportunity…  I was also snooping around your website and I clicked on the Mark Boney Promise.  
Mark Boney

WOW.  I think as writers, we have a responsibility to make a difference in the lives of young people and the young at heart.
(Click on the link to see what happened to Mark.)

MH:    Mark was my classmate from elementary through high school.  When we were small, others began to pick on and tease Mark.  Back then, we didn’t use the word “bully” much, and if we did, we used it as a noun to describe a really rotten, mean-spirited person.  We’d never heard it used as a verb – to “bully” someone.  But there’s no doubt, Mark was bullied.  He was picked on for nearly everything – the way he talked, the way he dressed, for being the smartest student in the class, for asking questions.

Sadly, when our class of 25 or so left elementary school for a larger middle school, life for Mark didn’t get any better. Others continued their taunting and teasing, and as high school approached, his classmates were rude and disrespectful. But Mark stuck it out.  He endured.  And he graduated with the rest of us.

HG:     So, were you that way?  Did you pick on Mark Boney?

MH:    I’ve thought about this often over the years. And, to the very best of my ability to recall, I believe the answer is no.  I didn’t fling the insults.  I wasn’t one who taunted and teased.  I never pointed out Mark’s differences.  I never tried to see if I could make him cry.

But I did something far worse.

I stood there.  I just stood there when a girl made fun of his clothing.  I watched and did nothing when the boys made him cry.

HG:     Unfortunately, this is what I see far too often at my own school:  students who simply stand around and do nothing.  They don’t get involved.  If they only knew the difference they could make.  I plan to share The MarkBoney Promise with my students.

MH:   Please do.  If we taught kindness from a very young age and modeled it as adults, we would impact today's youth.  We should teach how doing everyday little things can make a difference.  Like letting someone else go first in line, and giving something to someone who doesn’t have it.  Lessons like these learned during early elementary school years will stay with you.

HG      Indeed they will.  What's next on your horizon?

MH:    Well, I have two picture books coming out.  The first one is about Emma Gatewood, the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian trail.  That title will come out in 2015.

And the second picture book will be announced in a week or two.  I can’t say anything about it, but look for the announcement in Publisher’s Weekly.

HG:     That is so cool.  The best $5 I ever spent was buying your book almost 5 years ago and getting to meet you.  I definitely consider your friendship worthy of a blue ribbon.  

And for everyone that says they are busy, like me, Michelle's on her 6th project in 5 years and she still holds all of her other titles- mom, speech pathologist, farmer's wife.  Michelle.  I'm so proud of you.  You must return to LA before too many of the original book club members at my school promote to middle school.

MH:    That would be wonderful!

HG:     And “Please,” says my daughter, who held the phone during this interview.

MH:    Yes, tell her that it is definitely on the horizon.

HG:     Thank you for this interview.  If you haven’t visited Michelle’s site or checked out her blog, please do.  And if you haven’t read any of her titles, they are a must for all middle grade collections!  And please share The Mark Boney Promise every where you can.

From all of us here at The Pen and Ink Blog, 
we wish you the happiest holiday season and a successful 2015!  

Best wishes from, 
Hilde Garcia, Sue Berger, Lupe Fernandez, his lovely wife, Angel, 
and Kris Kahrs; 
our junior Inkies- Sam and Victoria Krol- 
and our silent, but technical advisor- David Krol.

Thank you for your continued support.


  1. What an inspiring author! Thanks for introducing her and her books.
    Happy New Year to all of you and your followers! Judy

  2. Jeepers. I enjoyed Beef Princess of Practical County. I wonder if Michelle got hate mail from vegans.
    Hamburger Lover Since '62


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