Author shares his journey to literacy

Children’s book writer tells middle-schoolers about growing up illiterate in Bolivia, Minn.

“I talk really strongly about their lives being the most important story they can tell,” said author Ben Mikaelsen before an appearance Wednesday at Escalante Middle School. Mikaelsen is the author of numerous children’s books including Rescue Josh McGuire, Petey, and Touching Spirit Bear. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“I talk really strongly about their lives being the most important story they can tell,” said author Ben Mikaelsen before an appearance Wednesday at Escalante Middle School. Mikaelsen is the author of numerous children’s books including Rescue Josh McGuire, Petey, and Touching Spirit Bear.

Escalante Middle School brushed with fame Wednesday as award-winning author Ben Mikaelsen delivered three anti-bullying presentations.

The appearance was the culminating event in the school’s unique Common Read project. Starting in October, as part of the Common Read project, all Escalante teachers and students read Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear.

The novel follows young criminal Cole Matthews on an unlikely path to redemption by subjecting himself to Native American Circle Justice, meaning a yearlong banishment to a remote Alaskan island.

Teacher John Hise said his class read the book aloud every morning.

“Out of sixteen students, only one didn’t like the book, and that’s because he hates reading,” said Hise, adding that he himself “absolutely loved it.”

Discerning seventh-grader Maya Reherman complained the “ending left you hanging.”

Though eighth-grader Gillian Wayne felt the talk was slightly too long, she said it was “really cool to meet someone famous.”

She loved the book, too.

“It was really interesting and different, not the average plot at all,” she said.

, “The goal of the Common Read project is to foster a climate of literacy and community,” Escalante Principal Tim Arnold said.

Every child got a copy of the book thanks to Durango Foundation for Educational Excellence, which donated $5,500 to the school. Elizabeth Testa, the foundation’s director, said it already had given $90,000 to Durango School District 9-R this year.

In the talk, Mikaelsen described being subjected to constant bullying in Bolivia and Minnesota, where his family was on food stamps, and graduating from high school without any teachers noticing he was essentially illiterate.

He said pursuing his passions saved him from despair, until his first year of college, when a professor insisted Mikaelsen undergo daily tutoring for writing.

Students such as sixth-grader Bella Aragon and eighth-graders Brady Thornburg and Jared Halvace were struck that a boy beset by so many academic and social problems could go on to become a wildly successful writer.

Sixth-grader Lukas Markley said he’d been bullied when he was in fourth grade.

“It made me feel mad,” he said.”I didn’t know why he was always being mean to me.”

Seventh-grader Clay Kinder gently assured him, “It’s worse in elementary school. In middle school, everyone’s much more civil.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com