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Author speaks about seizing opportunities, making a difference in young people's lives

Ben Mikaelsen, author of "Touching Spirit Bear," talks Tuesday at Willmar Junior High School to students and parents who read his book together. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- Every book he has written has been important to him, but "Touching Spirit Bear" has always been special, author Ben Mikaelsen said.

More than 200 Willmar Junior High students and their parents agreed last fall to read Mikaelsen's novel together.

On Tuesday, Mikaelsen visited the school to meet them and to talk with them about the novel's themes of justice and forgiveness. He spoke to students during the school day and then spoke to more than 150 students and parents Tuesday evening.

The main character of the book is a troubled boy who seriously injures another boy in a fight. He then faces circle justice, which comes from American Indian traditions. The boy is sentenced to live alone on an Alaskan island. The boy is mauled by a bear and nearly dies. Eventually, he learns to control his anger and take responsibility for his actions.

The dinner served after Mikaelson's talk Tuesday reflected some of the food the boy ate on the island -- hotdogs, spaghetti and Snickers bars.

Mikaelsen spoke about his writing career and about the book his audience had read. He put himself into at least four characters in the book, he said.

The themes of forgiveness and dealing with internal anger were personal lessons he learned while researching the book, he said. He had an unsatisfying childhood -- his parents were uninvolved, and he was physically abused by the head of a boarding school he attended.

With the other books he's written, "I can tell you in a sentence why I wrote it," he said. "Not with 'Touching Spirit Bear.' ... It was kinda like gas that accumulates in a room, and you never ever see it coming."

Because it meant so much to him, he said, "It's an honor to come here and hear that so many of you have read it."

Mikaelsen offered some advice for students and parents.

To the students, he said, "There is nothing that I've done in my life that is significant that didn't start when I was your age." He urged them to seize the opportunities before them and to "change someday to now."

To the adults in the room, he said that they didn't have to spend a lifetime with a child to make a difference in their lives.

Mikaelsen pointed to three people who made a difference in his life: a pilot who let a lonely 9-year-old tour his cockpit; a librarian who gave a barely literate boy who loved flying a book to read; and a college professor who took a short story full of spelling and grammar mistakes and told a young man that he thought he had potential as a writer, and then he sent him to a tutor.

His contact with those people amounted to about 15 minutes of his life, Mikaelsen said, but they were life-changing.

"If you give (young people) sincere encouragement, you will get to meet some wonderful people," he told the adults.

Mikaelsen autographed his books for the students who had brought them along.

Hannah Anderson, an eighth-grader from Willmar, said she was excited to have Mikaelson write, "You are part of the circle!" in her book. She'd never had a book autographed by the author before.

"I can't believe this is even happening," she said. Hannah read the book with her mother, Michelle.

With homework and other obligations, it took her a while to get started on the book, Michelle Anderson said, but "when I picked it up, I couldn't really put it down."

David Peterson of Svea was so moved by the novel's message that he got involved in a local restorative justice program.

Jordyn Peterson, 13, an eighth-grader at Willmar Junior High, put the book into his hands. The whole family read the book with Jordyn, including mom Pam, and 19-year-old brother Joel, a 2008 Willmar graduate.

"We've always been very avid readers," David Peterson said. All four said they had enjoyed the book and Mikaelsen's talk.

David Peterson got involved with the area circle sentencing program after reading it. "Now he's trying to recruit me, too," said Joel, and he's thinking about it.

The reading program was supported by several grants, including one from the Willmar Public Schools Foundation. The only cost to the families was the cost of the book.