February 20

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It All Started with a Black Bear Cub: Author Ben Mikaelsen – by Chris Dexter

One of my favorite middle grade and young adult authors is Ben Mikaelsen.  Maybe it is because he lives in Bozeman, Montana, less than two hours away from where I live.  Perhaps it is because his first book that I read was Rescue Josh McGuire, and I recognized some of the setting locations that he describes so vividly.  Maybe it is because his books are filled with adventures . . . adventures that he, himself, has researched, encountered, and taken part in.  Maybe it is because he presented one of the best author visits that I have ever attended.  Perhaps it is because he raised and lived with a 750 pound black bear for almost thirty years, a cub he saved after it could no longer be used for animal testing and that could not survive in the wild because its claws had been removed.

I first discovered Mikaelsen when I was teaching fourth grade.  Our school librarian had been weeding the library and had put some of the well-loved (but too tattered for the library) books out for the taking.  I grabbed a few, as I was always looking for ways to add to my classroom library.  One of the books that I grabbed was Rescue Josh McGuire because it had a border collie on that cover that looked like my own border collie.  I read it that weekend, went back to school on Monday, headed to our librarian, and asked for more books by Ben Mikaelsen.  Luckily, I was behind on discovering him, and he had a couple more books that I could check out.

Mikaelsen’s “voyage” to becoming a writer is an interesting one.  He was born in Bolivia and had to attend a private school, as he was bullied at the local school because of his race.  When he was in middle school, his family moved to the United States.  In his author visits, he tells about his first day of school in the U.S. where he wore his best clothes–his private school uniform which was “saddle shoes with bobby socks and leather knickers with a blouse-type shirt and bow tie.”  You can imagine how he was treated by the American students.  Spanish was his primary language, so he struggled academically also.  However, Ben said that he had always loved to write.  While in college, a professor told him that he had a talent for writing.  Luckily for us, he took this professor seriously.  Along with being a natural storyteller, Mikaelsen loves adventure and researches extensively.

Mikaelsen’s writing is authentic because of the research that he does and because he makes sure to experience the things that he writes about.  In Rescue Josh McGuire, my favorite of his books, he tells the story of Josh, a young boy who rescues a black bear cub that he names Pokey and then runs away to the mountains when he hears that Fish and Game want to take the cub away.  The book was my fourth graders’ favorite read aloud each year.  The book also has one of the best names for a dog, Mudflap!  (My second home growing up was my aunt and uncle’s farm with all of their critters, and as any farm kid can tell you, farm dogs love to chase trucks with their mudflaps.)  The descriptions of Pokey, the bear cub, are so genuine because Ben lived with a black bear, Buffy,  from the time it was a sixteen week old cub until the bear’s death over twenty years later.

With his other books, he continues to write exciting and authentic stories.  In Sparrow Hawk Red, the story of a boy who sets out to avenge the death of his mother, Ben went to Mexico and lived with the homeless so that he could write a factual account of what it was like to be homeless in Mexico.  For Countdown, the story of a boy from Montana who is chosen to be the first youth in space and who becomes friends with a Maasai boy living in Kenya, Mikaelsen went to NASA and participated in Space Camp and traveled to Africa so that his intertwining story was accurate.  Petey is an account of a man with cerebral palsy, who grew up in an insane asylum in the early to mid-1900’s because his parents could not care for him.  Petey is based on a man that Ben and his wife befriended when the man was living in a nursing home in Bozeman, and Mikaelsen set out to find the people whose lives “Petey” touched and to write about it.  This is a must read that would be a great companion book to a novel like Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  Award-winning Touching Spirit Bear tells the story of Cole, a boy who is given the chance to participate in Circle Justice, a Native American tradition, and live alone on an Alaskan island instead of going to jail for a crime he commits.  As I was working on this post, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ben’s newest book, Jungle of Bones, was published less than a month ago and tells the story of a troubled youth, Dylan, who is sent to live with his uncle who takes him to Papua New Guinea in search of his grandfather’s downed WWII plane.  These books, along with Stranded, Red Midnight, Tree Girl, and Ghost of Spirit Bear, all draw the reader in and make them question what is truly important in life.  They have always been my “go to” books for reluctant readers.

Ben Mikaelsen has a wonderful website.  The website has great resources for teachers and information and links for students.  However, best of all it has “Buffy’s Corner” with stories, pictures and video of Ben and Buffy, the black bear that he lived with for almost twenty-seven years.  This bear was truly a part of the family as you can see in the videos.  If this doesn’t hook kids on Ben’s books, nothing will!

Chris Dexter (@cwdexter) is the librarian and gifted and talented teacher at Radley School (grades 2-5) in East Helena, Montana. She is in her twenty-second year of teaching and loves her job as librarian and her role in leading children to become life-long readers.  She is married and has a daughter and two border collies.  She loves to read and mountain bike.