He drank cow blood with the Maasai of Africa, rode a horse from Minnesota to Oregon, and lived with a 750-pound bear, but one of the scariest moments for author Ben Mikaelsen was sneaking into a girls’ locker room in the middle of the night in Montana to take a shower.“Kids say, ‘Your stories are so real,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I did it,’ ” explains the award-winning author.
The shower was research for his book-in-progress about a seventh-grade girl who loses her parents and tries to live in her school library. He got permission to spend the night at Belgrade Middle School to do the things she might — sneak food from the cafeteria, sleep on the floor and hide from custodians. Although she’s a seventh-grader the girl can only read picture books. That’s something Mikaelsen didn’t have to research, he lived it.
Today Mikaelsen, 60, says he can go to just about any city in the U.S., walk into the library, and talk to kids who have read his books. This weekend he’ll sign books at the Art Under the Elms Family Fun Fair in Lewiston.
“The last 25 years are almost a pinch-yourself experience,” says the author who lives in Bozeman, Mont.
His most recognized books are “Touching Spirit Bear” and “Petey.” “Petey,” about a boy with cerebral palsy who grows up in an insane asylum, has been optioned for the big screen under the title “A Voice from an Empty Room.”
Now in its second million in sales, “Touching Spirit Bear” follows a violent teenager banished to an Alaskan island for Circle Justice, a system based on American Indian traditions that attempts to help offender, victim and community. On the island, the boy is mauled by a bear. The book tackles themes of anger, revenge, bullying and healing.
The Affect of “Touching Spirit Bear”
Not a week goes by, Mikaelsen says, that he does not receive an email or letter about the book. Recently he was told that adult prisoners in Connecticut who read it get two more hours in the yard.
“That’s one of 2,000 things. I never could have imagined that when I was penning this novel 12 years ago in a log house in Montana.” Mikaelsen says.
The book was inspired by a bear Mikaelsen adopted as a cub. Buffy was a former research animal that lived with the author for 26 years, until his death in 2010. Mikaelsen, who’d spent some time studying bears as a volunteer, raised the animal like a child, spending four or five hours a day with him outside his pen. Mikaelsen noticed the bear’s mood reflected his.
“If I was silly, he was silly. If I was rough, he was rough, and boy could he be rough. If I was sad, he’d rest his chin on my shoulder and he was the saddest bear. But when I was angry, those were the mornings he was dangerous.”
This became the lesson for his most popular book. The bear was a metaphor for life. How you treat him is how he treats you.
A Traumatic Childhood
Mikaelsen draws from his own traumatic childhood to bring his young characters to life. Raised in South America where his parents were missionaries, he was not sent to school or home schooled until he was in fourth grade.
“Their work was so important to them that we, tragically, the children in our family, became phantom kids,” he says.
When he did go to school he was so behind he was ridiculed and bullied by other children. In middle school in the U.S., every paper came back with a “D” or an “F.” He didn’t think of himself as a writer, even though he spent nights under the covers scribbling down stories, “pouring my heart out to a blank white nothing,” he says.
In college, his English comprehension was at a fifth-grade level, according to his SAT scores, but a professor told him he had a gift and needed to be a writer. The words gave him purpose.
Years later at a writer’s conference an old man approached to say he was enchanted by his stories. When Mikaelsen asked if he was a writer, the man said no, he was a doodler. He drew cartoons. When Mikaelsen asked if he might recognize his work the man said he had a little cartoon called “Peanuts.”
“I was talking to Charles Schulz. … I floated on air the next two years until my first novel was finished,” Mikaelsen says.
Because of his past Mikaelsen has a special empathy for kids who are behind and struggling. He speaks to students and teachers around the country. He believes his books can help “take the speed bumps out of life for kids” and that is what he has to offer this world.
“I think there’s a hundred different ways to be genius. I think every child in their way is genius,” he says. “As a society, we only recognize five or six different ways. One of the worst lessons you can teach a child is to have them believe in their heart they’re not gifted.”
if you go
Who: Author Ben Mikaelsen
Where: Art Under the Elms, Family Fun Fair, Lewis-Clark State College
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Friday, April 26; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 27; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 28.
Cost: Admission to the festival is $3 for a three-day pass; children 5 and younger admitted free
Of Note: Mikaelsen’s wife, Connie, of Vino Dishes is one of the artisans at Art Under the Elms.