FAIRFAX, Va. — Drawing inspiration from the lives of his own two children, affected by Sanfilippo Syndrome, drove Piqua native Matt McNeil to pen a book for youngsters that both entertained and educated.
“The Strange Tale of Ben Beesley” centered on two flies who, after being bitten by a spider, become affected by the same symptoms seen in people with Sanfilippo, an inherited disease of metabolism that prevents the body from breaking down long chains of sugar molecules called mucopolysaccharides or glycosaminoglycans.
“The story was very personal; the point of the book was to tell a story for my children and about them,” said McNeil, a 1994 graduate of Piqua High School. “The flies slowly lose their ability to walk and eat and talk, so Ben Beesley fights on their behalf, and takes them on a journey to find a cure, which leads them to a fight with the king of the spiders.
“It’s an allegory for illness and what you do for someone you love.”
The book was well-received by Piqua students in grades 4-6, who met McNeil during a trip to his hometown in 2013 as a visiting author in Piqua City Schools.
“They showed a lot of enthusiasm and wrote letters, which I still have,” McNeil said.
It was especially touching to him how the children rooted for the story’s two little flies to triumph. “If (they) feel that way about little flies in a book, how much more they could root for people around them in the same way, particularly kids who are different, kids who have disabilities,” he said.
Before he began writing “Ben Beesley,” McNeil said he’d been “down and depressed a lot,” and the process of spinning the tale proved to be cathartic.
“Writing gave me an escape and cheered me up a lot. I’d come away feeling a little uplifted by making something good out of a bad thing,” he said. “It was nice to imagine a different outcome for the story.”
Sadly, his daughter Waverly succumbed to the disease last year at age 12. An immigration attorney for the U.S. Department of State, McNeil lives in Virginia with his wife, Shannon, and son Oliver, 9, who recently started fourth grade.
McNeil’s latest book, “How I Saved My City,” takes a decidedly different tack than its predecessor.
“It’s a thank you note to people I grew up with in Piqua, and other authors who influenced me,” he explained.
In “How I Saved My City,” protagonist James Gale lives in the fictional town of Everston — “a town that somewhat resembles Piqua,” McNeil noted — where the mayor has some shady business dealings that involving the local nuclear power plant. Left by his parents in the care of nannies, James finds a friend in his teacher, Mrs. Wilkie, and her husband, who give James some aqua apes to raise as pets. On a school field trip to the nuclear power plant, his pets are flushed down the toilet and into the town’s water system.
McNeil developed the whimsical aqua apes subplot from boyhood memories. “When I was in second grade, I remember ordering sea monkeys from a comic book. I was so fascinated with them; I thought they would really grow up into aquatic monkeys,” he said with a laugh.
Worried about his pets’ ability to survive an upcoming move, a young McNeil took his concern to his mother, who suggested releasing the sea monkeys into Franz Pond.
“In my imagination, I saw them playing in the lake, me coming up to visit, that sort of thing,” he said. “The aqua apes grew out of that. Throughout the book, I take experiences like that, that I had growing up in Piqua and transform them into something weird, fictional and funny.”
Both “The Strange Tale of Ben Beesley” and “How I Saved My City” feature the artwork of McNeil’s high school classmate Jason Moore.
“He was one of my best friends growing up. Jason was always doodling; he could never stop drawing as a kid,” McNeil said. “He now works as a professional artist. His creative spark always drove me to want to be creative.”
“How I Saved My City” is available at Readmore’s Hallmark, 430 N. Main St., as well as through Amazon.com. All proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to Jill’s House, a non-profit organization that provides respite care, summer camps and activities for children with special needs.
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341.