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Ben Mikaelsen meets with QHS students reading his book “Touching Spirit Bear.” Photo submitted

Inspirational young adult author comes to PUSD schools

Young adult author Ben Mikaelsen gives an inspirational talk, sharing his childhood experiences with bullying and low self-esteem at Greenville High School on Thursday, Oct. 18. Photo by Meg Upton

“It started as a wild idea,” Chester High School English teacher Kathleen Copeland said. Her students had been reading young adult book author Ben Mikaelsen’s “Touching Spirit Bear.” She noticed he was scheduled to do a talk and a reading in Susanville on Oct. 17. What if she could get him to come to Plumas County for a day?

With the support of her principal, Copeland pushed forward with the last minute idea. Mikaelsen said yes — and came to Plumas Unified School District schools Oct. 18. He visited Chester High in the early morning, then Greenville High at 11 a.m., and made his final stop at Quincy High in the afternoon.

QHS teacher Suzanne Stirling’s students had also been reading “Touching Spirit Bear” and were excited to meet the author. Stirling facilitated bringing Plumas Charter School’s seventh- and eighth-graders in Quincy to the author’s assembly.

Mikaelsen travels the country doing author events in person as well as via Skype. He gives autobiographical talks that are partly about the themes of his books and partly inspirational pep talks to encourage students not to give in to despair.

In any given school year, bullying and the pressures to fit in are perennial topics. Mikaelsen’s talks indicate he remembers what it’s like to be a kid.

In Greenville, he spoke of growing up the “gringo” kid in the Bolivian Andes mountains. He didn’t go to school or learn to read until he was around the age of fourth grade. He was teased relentlessly for being different for his skin tone and language and, in his words — for being dumb.

Later his family returned to the United States and lived in small town Minnesota where he’d hoped to finally shake the bullying and teasing. But it worsened when he was looked at as dressing weird and “foreign.”

He got beat up continually.

There were lots of nods of the head in the seventh- through 12th-grade audience — the recognition of what it’s like to not fit in, to feel like others think you are less. He made the students laugh, too, with his self-deprecating humor — here he was an author now, but he had no idea what sentences were or punctuation or any of the basic mechanics of English. What he did have were stories that he needed to get down.

Mikaelsen spoke of getting to the very edge of not being accepted in school, of being miserable and trying to fit in. One day he had the realization that they’d beat him up whether he tried to fit in or not so he might as well just be himself and do his own thing.

He saved up money from part-time jobs as a teenager to give himself flying lessons. He wanted to dive off cliffs. He wanted more than being picked on. To his amazement doing his own thing earned him, if not the respect of his bullying peers, at least a truce and the absence of bruised skin. The bullying stopped.

Mikaelsen also kept a library room full of high school students in rapt attention for an hour. No small feat.

Award winning children’s author Ben Mikaelsen poses with students behind several of his book jackets after speaking to a group of Chester Elementary seventh- to ninth-graders inside Chester High School’s gymnasium Oct. 18, about his new book “Touching Spirit Bear.” Mikaelsen travels the world speaking and sharing his strong anti-bullying message. Photo by Stacy Fisher

There are some autobiographical elements to “Touching Spirit Bear.” It’s the story of a young bully who beats another student unconscious. Rather than facing prison time, the character Cole Matthews is given the choice of Native American Circle Justice — a year in isolation on an Alaskan Island. While there he’s mauled nearly to death by a spirit bear and the rest of the book descends into the question of whether the bear’s act destroys his life or saves his soul. It addresses forgiveness and restitution and whether an angry, emotionally damaged teen can be redeemed. It’s a winning premise to enthrall young readers.

The themes of the book — and his other works as well — were very much in his talk as well.

He shared realizing when he was wrong. He thought that the bullying in Bolivia was because of race and that the move to the US would save him. It didn’t. He thought being labeled ‘dumb’ would follow him for life and that doing something like becoming an author or a pilot would be out of reach. It wasn’t.

“You have to make your dreams happen,” Mikaelsen told his audience.

Copeland was pleased that it all worked out at the last minute and that the district was supportive of the event. Barn Owl Books in Quincy supplied copies of the book to Stirling’s seventh-grade class.

He lives near Bozeman, Montana with his wife and a bear he’s raised, and related well to his student audience in his speech regarding what students in rural communities face.

“Touching Spirit Bear” came out in 2002 with a sequel “Ghost of Spirit Bear” in 2010. The books have also been made into a film.

His newest young adult book is “Jungle of Bones” which came out in 2015. His books are frequently taught in middle schools across the country and have received various awards for young adult novels.

PUSD invites Plumas Charter Students in Quincy to hear author Ben Mikaelsen speak. Photo submitted

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