"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ghost of Spirit Bear

I've finished listening to the audio book of Ghost of Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen. It is the sequel to the much lauded 2001 book Touching Spirit Bear.

Here is a review of Touching Spirit Bear:

From School Library Journal

Grade 7 Up-

Cole Matthews is a violent teen offender convicted of viciously beating a classmate, Peter, causing neurological and psychological problems. Cole elects to participate in Circle Justice, an alternative sentencing program based on traditional Native American practices that results in his being banished to a remote Alaskan Island where he is left to survive for a year. Cynical and street smart, he expects to fake his way through the preliminaries, escape by swimming off the island, and beat the system, again. But his encounter with the Spirit Bear of the title leaves him desperately wounded and gives him six months of hospitalization to reconsider his options. Mikaelsen's portrayal of this angry, manipulative, damaged teen is dead on. Cole's gradual transformation into a human kind of being happens in fits and starts. He realizes he must accept responsibility for what he has done, but his pride, pain, and conditioning continue to interfere. He learns that his anger may never be gone, but that he can learn to control it. The author concedes in a note that the culminating plot element, in which Peter joins Cole on the island so that both can learn to heal, is unlikely. But it sure works well as an adventure story with strong moral underpinnings. Gross details about Cole eating raw worms, a mouse, and worse will appeal to fans of the outdoor adventure/survival genre, while the truth of the Japanese proverb cited in the frontispiece, "Fall seven times, stand up eight" is fully and effectively realized.

Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA

Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

I personally thought that the first Spirit Bear book was unusual and fascinating. As a librarian, I've met many middle grade kids who love it. It has won numerous state book awards. But, before I talk about the current book, I need to be fair and mention objections to the book raised by Native Americans. This is troubling to me. Educator Debbie Reese, who teaches at UIUC's American Indian Studies program writes about them in her blog. You can read about them here and draw your own conclusions.

Ghost of Spirit Bear has Cole and Peter returning from the island, and facing new challenges at their Minneapolis High School. Can they apply what they learned when put back into their own routines? Can they fight bullies without resorting to blackmail and threats? Can they make a difference in a school filled with gangs, drugs and general disrespect and apathy?

I have read that some think that teens will be turned off by the book's earnestness and didacticism. I think that even if that is true, there's no harm in presenting teens with a different way to think about a difficult situation. As an adult reader and keeping the cautions over the presentation of the Tlingit people and their culture in mind, I feel this book still has much to offer. What do you think?

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