For two weeks, as many as 20 teenage boys sprawled out on a floor at the Juvenile Detention Center in Leesburg and listened as their English teacher read them the book, ÒTouching Spirit Bear.Ó
ÒIt was amazing to come in every day, having 16- and 17-year-old kids lying on the floor,Ó Peggy Gordon said. ÒSome of them said no one had ever read to them before.Ó
THE READING was in anticipation of a visit by the bookÕs award-winning author, Ben Mikaelsen, who has penned nine books. ÒTouching Spirit BearÓ is about a teenager who has been in trouble most of his life. He is an angry, lying and violent young man. He beats a boy and leaves him with possible brain damage. Under the Native American tradition of Òcircle justice,Ó the boy is banished to a remote island in Alaska. He is mauled by a mythical bear that nearly kills him, but saves his soul.
Gordon said she and the boys talked about how the bookÕs themes resonated with their own experiences. ÒWhat is their purpose in life? What do they value? What goals have they set for themselves? And how the things they do in the community hurt the community and themselves.Ó
Mikaelsen, who confessed to having been a bully and having seen the inside of a few police stations, spoke to the boys last week about how he eventually discovered he was worthwhile. He challenged them to be the authors of their own lives. ÒI talked about their lives being the most important story they will ever tell,Ó he said, after the visit.
GORDON SAID Mikaelsen made a difference. ÒHe talked about trust, healing and control, which are all significant elements of these kidsÕ lives,Ó she said. ÒI had a couple of kids pouring their hearts out here today with the need to tell the truth.Ó
Mikaelsen also spoke about his books at Mill Run Elementary School in Ashburn and the Ashburn Library. He told the libraryÕs audience of 25 children and adults that three people had each made a difference in his life, by spending only five minutes talking to him. One was a teacher who said Mikaelsen was a gifted storyteller and writer. He shared how he came up with the ideas for his books, including the first, ÒRescue Josh McGuire.Ó He was given the task of rescuing two cubs that were nearly dead. ÒI didnÕt know if I could save them,Ó he said.
After 10 days, the male bearÕs health improved. ÒThe little female, she wouldnÕt live and she wouldnÕt die,Ó he said. Eventually, she rallied and stumbled over to Mikaelsen. He hurried to get her food and water, but she put her paw to her mouth and made a repetitive sound that indicated she was not hungry. She just wanted to be close to her caretaker. ÒI knew I had saved her life,Ó he said.
The state Fish and Game Department took the bears back after two weeks and put them to sleep. Mikaelsen was never told they would be euthanized. ÒI knew I had to write this book.Ó
His love for bears grew and he eventually brought home a cub, which he named ÒBuffy.Ó He had no idea what to do with the animal, Òso I raised him as a child.Ó His Montana neighbors now call Mikaelsen the ÒBear Man.Ó He travels only when his 22-year-old, 700-pound, ÒBuffyÓ is in hibernation.
THE IDEA FOR ÒTree GirlÓ came from a woman who said a tree had saved her life. Before she shared her story, she told Mikaelsen that he was to only listen and not ask any questions. She said her mother always told her that the higher she climbed the trees, the closer it took her to heaven. One day when she was very high up in a tree, she saw her entire village massacred. She watched everyone she had ever known die. When it was safe, she climbed down and walked miles to safety. At the end of her story, she repeated what her mother had told her about getting closer to heaven. ÒShe was wrong, it took me closer to hell.Ó She vowed never to climb another tree.
Mikaelsen said he knew that the tree was a metaphor for life and the woman had given up on hers. He decided to write a book about a girl who, despite hardships in her life, would climb a tree again.
Mikaelsen also talked about the research for his books. When he wrote ÒStrandedÓ he talked to two women, Karrie and Melissa, about what it was like for them to have prostheses. To drive home the pain caused when a prosthesis does not fit a stump properly, they advised him to cross a gymnasium floor on his knees. With his hands tied behind his back, he had bloody knees by the end of the trek.
The author writes most of his books for middle-school-age children. ÒPetey,Ó however, is for high-school students. He has signed options for ÒPeteyÓ and ÒTouching Spirit BearÓ to become movie productions.
MIKAELSENÕS VISIT was sponsored by the Shelley A. Marshall Foundation and the Loudoun County Public Library, which hosts authors monthly. Melissa West, public information specialist, said the purpose is to get more people interested in reading and to Òshare a love of literature.Ó
Jerry Spinelli, author of ÒManiac Magee,Ó ÒCrashÓ and ÒStar Girl,Ó will be a guest author in February. Gordon said Spinelli is scheduled to speak to the juveniles.
Gordon said she was aware that Mikaelsen has written a sequel to ÒTouching Spirit Bear,Ó which is slated for publication next year. ÒThey are very interested in getting it,Ó she said. ÒBen Mikaelsen definitely made a difference.Ó