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Children's Literature Reviews
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Touching Spirit Bear
Ben Mikaelsen.
Contributor biographical information
Publisher description
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
241 p. ; 22 cm.


After his anger erupts into violence, Cole, in order to avoid going to prison, agrees to participate in a sentencing alternative based on the native American Circle Justice, and he is sent to a remote Alaskan Island where an encounter with a huge Spirit Bear changes his life.

Best Books:

Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Children's Book Sense 76 Picks, Spring/Summer 2001 ; Book Sense 76; United States
Los Angeles' 100 Best Books, 2001 ; IRA Children's Literature and Reading SIG and the Los Angeles Unified School District; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, February 2001 ; Cahners; United States
Serving Native American/First Nation Youth Populations, 2003 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2002 ; American Library Association; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

Beehive Book Award, 2003 Winner Grades 7-12 Utah
California Young Reader Medal, 2003 Winner Junior High California
Flicker Tale Children's Book Award, 2002 Winner Juvenile Fiction North Dakota
Golden Archer Award, 2004 Winner Middle/Junior High Level Wisconsin
Golden Sower Award, 2004 Winner Young Adult Nebraska
Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, 2004 Winner Grades 6-8 Minnesota
Nevada Young Readers' Award, 2003 Winner Young Adult Nevada
Soaring Eagle Book Award, 2006 Winner Wyoming
Sunshine State Young Reader's Award, 2004 Winner Grades 6-8 Florida

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Arizona Young Readers' Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Teen Books; Arizona
Black-Eyed Susan Book Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Grades 6 - 9; Maryland
California Young Reader Medal, 2003 ; Nominee; Middle School/Junior High; California
Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award, 2005-2006 ; Nominee; Indiana
Evergreen Young Adult Book Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Washington
Flicker Tale Children's Book Award, 2002 ; Nominee; Juvenile Books; North Dakota
Golden Archer Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Middle/Junior High; Wisconsin
Golden Sower Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Young Adult; Nebraska
Iowa Teen Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Iowa
Lone Star Reading List, 2002-2003 ; Texas
Nevada Young Readers' Award, 2003 ; Nominee; Young Adult; Nevada
Nutmeg Children's Book Award, 2006 ; Nominee; Teens; Connecticut
Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Illinois
Sequoyah Book Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Young Adult; Oklahoma
Soaring Eagle Book Award, 2001-2002 ; Nominee; Grades 7-12; Wyoming
Soaring Eagle Book Award, 2005-2006 ; Nominee; Grades 7-12; Wyoming
South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; South Carolina
Sunshine State Young Reader's Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Grades 6-8; Florida
Utah Children's Book Awards, 2003 ; Nominee; Young Adult; Utah
Voice of Youth Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; 7th and 8th Grade; Illinois
Volunteer State Book Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Young Adult, Grades 7-12; Tennessee
Wisconsin Battle of the Books, 2007-2008 ; Middle Level; Wisconsin
Young Adult Reading Program, 2003 ; Grades 7-12; South Dakota
Young Hoosier Book Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Middle Grades (Grades 6-8); Indiana
Young Reader's Choice Award, 2004 ; Nominee; Middle (Grades 7-9); Pacific Northwest

Curriculum Tools:

Link to Discussion Guide at Multnomah County Library
Link to Teaching Guide from Publisher

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Middle Grade
Book Level 5.3
Accelerated Reader Points 9
Accelerated Vocabulary

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Lexile Measure 670

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 6-8
Reading Level 5
Title Point Value 14
Lexile Measure 670


Marta Segal (Booklist, Jan. 1, 2001 (Vol. 97, No. 9))
Cole Matthews is a 15-year-old, baby-faced con. The child of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, Cole has been getting into trouble most of his life. One day, he beats a fellow student so severely the boy suffers permanent physical damage. Mikaelsen's new novel is the story of Cole's redemption; it is also a look at an unusual justice system. Cole's parole officer arranges for Cole to face "Circle Justice," a Native American tradition. The Circle decides that Cole must spend a year, by himself, on a remote Alaskan island. Cole is at first resistant, but he eventually learns much about himself and his anger, and he even finds a way to help his victim. Some may argue that the change in Cole comes too quickly to be realistic, but even students with very different backgrounds will empathize with this tortured bully. As in Countdown (1997), Mikaelsen is at his best when using the story to explain other cultures. An excellent companion to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet (1987) and Allan Eckert's Incident at Hawk's Hill (1971). Category: Books for Older Readers--Fiction. 2001, HarperCollins, $14.95, $14.89. Gr. 6-9.

Christopher Moning (Children's Literature)
In order to avoid a prison sentence, fifteen-year-old Cole Matthews opts to spend a year alone on an island in Southwest Alaska. This alternative punishment is part of Circle Justice, a healing form of justice that has been practiced by native cultures for thousands of years. But Cole harbors resentment toward the world that no justice can placate. He torches his shelter, destroys his supplies, and then has a run-in with a giant white Spirit Bear that leaves him maimed and badly injured. But has this near death experience helped Cole accept the patience, gentleness, strength, and honesty that is Circle Justice's goal? Cole's parole officer and a Native American elder, Edwin, risk their reputations so that Cole can give the island another chance. Finally, Cole realizes that it is not through anger but through forgiveness that he will find redemption. The author, who lives with an adopted 700-pound black bear in Montana, does not shy away from describing the violent and sometimes gruesome confrontations with man and beast that Cole pits himself against. 2001, HarperCollins, $15.95. Ages 10 up.

Jan Lieberman (Children's Literature)
Cole has been in trouble with the law half of his life. At fifteen years old is it too late for him to be rehabilitated or is jail the only answer? He has lied convincingly to avoid jail but this time his victim is a fellow student, Peter, who may have suffered permanent brain damage. Ben Mikaelsen has written a powerful story in Touching Spirit Bear. Cole's social worker convinces authorities to try the Native American Circle Justice treatment that puts the offender on a remote Alaskan island where survival depends on his own inner strength. Even then, Cole's anger rages. It is the mauling he suffers by Spirit Bear that eventually changes him physically and spiritually. Mikaelsen's probing into the causes and nature of violent anger rings true. What affected me deeply was the healing power of the story. A must read for teens. 2001, HarperCollins, $15.95. Ages 12 up.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2001 (Vol. 69, No. 1))
Troubled teen meets totemic catalyst in Mikaelsen's ("Petey", 1998, etc.) earnest tribute to Native American spirituality. Fifteen-year-old Cole is cocky, embittered, and eaten up by anger at his abusive parents. After repeated skirmishes with the law, he finally faces jail time when he viciously beats a classmate. Cole's parole officer offers him an alternative--Circle Justice, an innovative justice program based on Native traditions. Sentenced to a year on an uninhabited Arctic island under the supervision of Edwin, a Tlingit elder, Cole provokes an attack from a titanic white "Spirit Bear" while attempting escape. Although permanently crippled by the near-death experience, he is somehow allowed yet another stint on the island. Through Edwin's patient tutoring, Cole gradually masters his rage, but realizes that he needs to help his former victims to complete his own healing. Mikaelsen paints a realistic portrait of an unlikable young punk, and if Cole's turnaround is dramatic, it is also convincingly painful and slow. Alas, the rest of the characters are cardboard caricatures: the brutal, drunk father, the compassionate, perceptive parole officer, and the stoic and cryptic Native mentor. Much of the plot stretches credulity, from Cole's survival to his repeated chances at rehabilitation to his victim being permitted to share his exile. Nonetheless, teens drawn by the brutality of Cole's adventures, and piqued by Mikaelsen's rather muscular mysticism, might absorb valuable lessons on anger management and personal responsibility. As melodramatic and well-meaning as the teens it targets. 2001, HarperCollins, $14.95. Category: Fiction. Ages 13 up. © 2001 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Paula Rohrlick (KLIATT Review, January 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 1))
At age 15, Cole has already been in and out of police stations, detention centers, and residential treatment centers, but now his violent temper has gotten him into really serious trouble--he's been arrested for smashing a classmate's head to the sidewalk so hard that the boy has suffered permanent damage. The courts are trying to decide what to do with Cole when his youth probation officer, a Tungit Indian named Garvey, suggests Circle Justice. This is a new trial program, a healing contract agreed to by a committee including the victim and his parents, lawyers, and concerned citizens. In Cole's case, they decide that a year alone on a remote Alaskan island would better serve justice than jail would, and so Cole is banished, left with supplies to survive alone in the wilderness. At first Cole tries to escape, and then he attacks a giant white bear, a Spirit Bear, that infuriates him by not showing any fear. The bear mauls Cole badly, and he is eventually rescued. Physical healing takes six months, but the experience has changed Cole, and he is eager to go back to the island and make the most of the opportunity he has been given. He learns from his surroundings, and gradually understands that part of healing is reaching out to help others--in this case, his victim, who reluctantly comes to the island and eventual reconciles with Cole. Not entirely realistic, perhaps, but there's lots of exciting outdoor adventure here, in the style of Gary Paulsen and Will Hobbs. The first half of the book is especially riveting. But Cole's transformation from juvenile delinquent to respectful observer of nature in the second half will interest readers too, and the Native American Circle Justice concept, which is now being tried in some U.S. judicial systems, is intriguing. KLIATT Codes: JS--Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2001, HarperCollins, 242p, $14.95. Ages 13 to 18.

Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May 2001 (Vol. 54, No. 9))
Fifteen-year-old Cole Matthews has been in trouble with the law for years, the consequences of his antisocial behavior mitigated by expensive lawyers hired by his abusive but wealthy father. When Cole violently assaults Peter, a fellow student, he is in trouble so deep his father canít get him out. Garvey, an American Indian parole officer, arranges for the bitterly cynical and devious boy to be tried by Circle Justice, a traditional way of administering justice to the repentant guilty and solace to a wounded community. Garvey and Edwin, a generic wise Indian elder, convey Cole to an island where there is shelter and supplies; he is to remain there alone for a year, contemplating his life. With no intention of staying on the island, Cole burns down the shelter and destroys most of his supplies. After his escape plan fails, he encounters a huge white bear, a Spirit Bear, which severely mauls him. In his pain and delirium, he has a spiritual awakening that convinces him to change his life. Rescued by Garvey and Edwin, Cole recovers, and, determined to make good, he convinces the Circle to send him back to the island. Characterizations are flat and programmatic, with many of the players merely acting as functionaries for the drawn-out, farfetched plot. Coleís transformation from punk to pilgrim is too easily accomplished, and his parroting of American Indian wisdom is irritatingly earnest; on the other hand, his solitary life on the island is just the ticket for Paulsen fans, who will appreciate the survival story. Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. (c) Copyright 2001, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2001, HarperCollins, 241p, $15.89 and $15.95. Grades 6-10.

Kathleen Roseboom (The Lorgnette - Heart of Texas Reviews (Vol. 14, No. 1))
What do you do with a teenager who can't control his anger? The courts and counselors are not sure until the Native American tradition of Circle Justice is offered. This system would put Cole on an island for one year with only periodical monitoring so that he can contemplate his future and past and come to terms with himself and his emotions. This is an excellent book for students that have "no fear" of death or destruction. It gives insights to anger and the workings of a teenager's lack of respect, control, and concept of themselves. Fiction, Highly Recommended. n/a. 2001, HarperCollins, 241p, $15.89.

Lucy Schall (VOYA, June 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 2))
Mikaelsen tells a gory survival story that evolves into an inspiring and sophisticated coming-of-age journey via "Circle Justice." Cole Mathews blames everyone but himself for his criminal record and violent behavior, but when he agrees to isolation on a remote Alaskan island instead of jail time for his vicious attack on a fourteen-year-old boy, he confronts immovable natural forces and ancient Tlingit Indian wisdom. Cole is mauled by a Spirit Bear he tries to kill. His attitude and injuries abort his first wilderness sentence and focus his second. Physically weakened but mentally prepared, Cole, both criminal and victim, learns that his own healing will take place only when he can heal his spirit by helping Peter Driscal, the boy he attacked. Like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet (Simon & Schuster, 1987), which tells about survival through "tough hope," Mikaelsen's story portrays survival through tough love. Garvey, Cole's parole officer, and Edwin, a Tlingit elder who remains supportive and unrelenting, teach Cole how to build a meaningful life through their expectations, firmness, stories, dances, and personal examples. Their illustrations--bad-tasting ingredients that create a delicious cake, a stick that shows the relationship between anger and happiness, a cooking lesson that teaches the meaning of life--explain a kind of discipline that never deserts the criminal or forgets his crime. Cole's journey to self-realization and truth through hardship, confrontation, and ritual will fascinate young and old, promote fruitful discussion about the impossibility of happily-ever-after endings, and have everyone waiting for the sequel. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, HarperCollins, 241p, $15.95. Ages 11 to 18.


Juvenile delinquents--Rehabilitation Fiction.
Anger Fiction.
Forgiveness Fiction.
Child abuse Fiction.
Tlingit Indians Fiction.
Indians of North America--Alaska Fiction.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ7.M5926 To 2001
00040702 [Fic]
0060291494 (lib. bdg.)
View the WorldCat Record for this item.