How children’s books changed this author’s life
Matthew Beam on how a detour in teaching led to his dream job
Celebrated young-adult and children’s author Matthew Beam now makes his living off academia and literature, but he says he wasn’t a star student in high school.
“I was your constant B student all the way through. I wrote very creative essays, with outlandish theses that I could never quite prove,” he explains. “I think that’s why I became a writer, I didn’t have to adhere to anyone’s structure.”
While academics were not his strong suit, Beam was the typical sporty student.
He played basketball, soccer and ran cross-country. But somewhere around Grade 10, he started reading detective novels and that lit a spark.
“Eventually, reading those novels made me think I could write,” he says. “I took writer’s craft courses, but to be honest, I spent a long time saying I’d be a writer without actually writing. I used to say I had living or ‘research’ to do.”
While he was doing all that living, he relocated to Sydney, Australia for teachers’ college.
And since jobs in Ontario were scarce, he stuck around that side of the globe and took a teaching post in New Zealand.
“While I was there, I gave the kids an editing assignment. I couldn’t find a two-page short story for them to work on, so I wrote one, and I was thrilled about it,” says Beam.
It wasn’t long after that revelatory moment that the newly invigorated writer decided to leave New Zealand and come back to Toronto to write.
“I bought a giant iMac circa 1997 and started writing bad, overwritten adult fiction,” he says jokingly. “I was trying to be poetic without perspective.”
When Beam backed off on the esoteric prose and started writing for a younger audience, he found it surprisingly easy to express himself without all the pretense. “That’s when I wrote Can You
Spell Revolution?,” he says. And after a long legal battle with a defunct publishing company to get the rights back, that first young-adult novel of his was eventually sold to HarperCollins.
The legal battle took so long that Beam’s second book, Getting to First Base with Danalda Chase, had already been published through HarperCollins by the time Can you Spell Revolution? hit the shelves.
Through a publisher called Groundwood, he released two collaborations with Joanne Schwartz for younger readers, called City Alphabet and City
Numbers. The books, with Beam’s photography and words by Schwartz, explores the process of learning the alphabet and numbers with arresting images of the urban landscape.
Zombie Prince, published this past September, is Beam’s and first traditional picture book.
“This book is about boys supporting each other and responding to each other in a creative and emotional way,” says Beam. “For men to be better, boys have to be better. When we get together, we tend to narrow each other with machismo and competition. I’m trying to teach boys that they can be whatever they want.”
Beam also continues to teach Grades 6 and 7 at the Claremont School on Danforth Avenue, which is a school for students with dyslexia.
Whether in the classroom or on the published page, Beam is on a mission to teach kids that they can be whatever they want to be.
Beam’s latest book ‘Zombie Prince’ was released in September