UM Alum Flourishes Writing Children’s Books and Helping Others Learn

The years that children’s book author Alex Beene spent at Ole Miss were filled with change. During his first year as a student, Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi just a few hours away from Oxford. Toward the end of his time as an undergraduate student, the journalism department transitioned to being a journalism school and moved into Farley Hall.

“I was here during kind of a chaotic time,” he recalls. “For my first two years, we were all over. You’d have an international journalism class in the biology building, for example. Classes were wherever they could fit us in. It was a fun time, kind of crazy, but it was neat to see a school come together.”

During his years as a student, a lot of his time was devoted to being an editor at The Daily Mississippian.

“We’d work nights, and I remember being up there until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” Beene remembers. “Back then, The Daily Mississippian was everything.”

Even before coming to Ole Miss, he had an interest in newspaper journalism. He wrote articles for his local newspaper in Henderson, Tennessee, when he was in high school. He says that it was around this time that he discovered his knack for writing.

“I realized when I was putting those newspaper articles out there that people really liked what I was writing,” he explains.

He also remembers that when he wrote his first paper in his sophomore year of high school, he felt something he had not felt before.

“My teacher read my paper to the class and said it was the example of how to write an essay,” he says. “It was like light bulbs went off, because I had never been told I could write well. That was a changing point and everything else that has happened since came from that.”

His childhood contributed to his passion for journalism in other ways, as well. He describes his youth as “very Americana.”

Beene grew up on a farm in a rather isolated area, with the nearest house about two miles away. He remembers spending time exploring the rolling green hills and the flat farmland.

“I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that the farm, as rustic as it was, out in the middle of nowhere, was the best thing for me because I had to use my imagination a lot,” he notes.

The Lion and the Lyceum by Alex Beene

The development of a strong imagination when he was a child is part of what led him to be interested in writing children’s books. His family, which he describes as a family of storytellers, also contributed.

“I was surrounded by storytellers. Not that they wrote books, but that they loved sharing stories, and it was probably the best thing for me,” Beene says.

He felt the same warm environment that he grew up surrounded by when he visited Ole Miss for the first time. Like many other students, he fell in love with the campus and the town of Oxford.

“It was a very warm environment,” he says. “It was beautiful and alluring, with nice people. I felt comfortable making the transition from a small town.”

When he came to Ole Miss, his interest in writing flourished. He remembers that after just a few journalism classes, he was hooked.

There are two things that he says stick out the most from his time as a student. The first is The Daily Mississippian. At the newspaper, he had to design the layout for the pages of the section for which he was the editor.

“I’m far from the world’s best designer, but designing my own pages at The Daily Mississippian has helped me know about things like text placement, imagery, knowing what looks good and what doesn’t and what will catch the reader’s eye,” Beene explains.

Working at The Daily Mississippian taught him to manage people, as well.

The second thing that Beene says contributed most to his life at Ole Miss were the professors.

“My professors were the people who shaped me,” he recalls.

One of his most beloved professors and his thesis adviser, Kathleen Wickham, still remembers him fondly for his warm personality and strong work ethic.

“Alex was an inquisitive student with wide-ranging interests including travel, journalism, teaching and art,” Wickham says. “His master’s thesis tackled media coverage in the movies and it was a joy to work with him on the project. He met every deadline. His research was comprehensive, and his writing skills were superb. He set the standard high for the graduate program.”

Beene graduated with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and an English minor in 2008. He earned his master’s degree in 2010.

“My job is related to the children’s books I write because I see the need in communities where reading is not emphasized.”    – Alex Beene

After earning his master’s, Beene went on to New York and worked for several film festivals before doing corporate communications for General Electric. He discovered that corporate communications was not to his liking, so he moved into the education field.

He has been working in education for the state of Tennessee for the last five years.

“Education is something that’s really empowering to me, because I wanted to influence others like my professors influenced me,” he says.

Currently, his job is with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He focuses on helping people earn their diplomas and getting the training necessary to find jobs.

“We have a huge problem now with large percentages of people who don’t have a high school diploma, a technical degree or technical training,” he explains. “We have so many companies that want to move to the South, but we don’t have the workforce. We’re trying to fix that with this initiative.”

Although this seems unrelated to the children’s books that he writes, Beene explains that there actually is a connection.

“My job is related to the children’s books I write because I see the need in communities where reading is not emphasized,” he said.

Before writing his first book, he had considered ideas for books, but had not seriously thought about publishing one. However, when his mother passed away unexpectedly, he realized that life is too short to not pursue your dreams.

Once he published his first book within nine months of pitching his idea to an illustrator, he thought he had gotten the itch for writing out of his system.

“The interesting thing is that you think that when you’ve done something once, you’re done,” he says. “I thought I was done, but when you know you can do it and you have a good story to tell, you keep doing it.”

Jennifer Rose Reid, also an Ole Miss graduate, has become one of Beene’s good friends. The two have worked together on one of his books.

“Working with Alex is truly a joy,” Reid says. “He says he has an idea, and I immediately say, ‘Count me in,’ without even waiting for details. I know that Alex only pursues projects that he is very passionate about, and I respect him for that. His passion infuses the project, which not only makes a wonderful finished product, but it makes the process fun and fulfilling.”

Beene says that when he graduated from the journalism school in 2008, he never would have guessed that his life would have progressed the way it has.

“I thought I’d be barely making minimum wage,” he remarks. “But that’s the great thing about life. You never know what tomorrow will hold for you.”

He has learned to live in the moment and worry less about what tomorrow holds and encourages young college students to do the same.

“I don’t think it’s ever bad to take life step by step,” Beene says. “It’s important to test your feelings to see what works for you. The best types of feelings are the ones you haven’t had yet.”

By Elizabeth Blackstock

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 5 (2017-2018).

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