Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear
Ben Mikaelsen
Scholastic, 2001
Source: my classroom library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ben Mikaelsen takes us on a journey along with Cole Matthews as he confronts his demons in Touching Spirit Bear.  Cole is angry.  Very angry.  He's angry enough that he beat the you know what out of a kid for ratting on him.  That kid, Peter Driscal, is now in the hospital and Cole has found himself in a juvenile detention center as he awaits sentencing.  But there is an alternative, a chance to change.  Through Circle Justice, a healing practice that focuses on the healing of both parties instead of just the punishment of one, Cole is sent to an Alaskan island to spend a year in solitude.  But is that enough for Cole Matthews?  Can he really change just from spending a year on his own in the wilderness? Can he even survive?

I read this books years ago and it's always been at the back of my mind for some of my students.  Although I have sixth graders and Cole Matthews is fifteen years old, some of the anger I see bottled up at times reminds me of him.  I have been thinking about sharing this with them and finally jumped in, reading carefully through it in order to prepare my read alouds.

One of the parts that I really appreciate about this book is the symbolism that is rampant throughout the first part.  Cole's anger is always smoldering under the surface until there is an explosion.  The references to fire and heat and anger are all mixed up in the first half of the book (in a good way).  As a class we'll start keeping track of these instances and then I'll have them draw a picture of Cole's anger, hoping that they all include fire of some sort in their drawing. 

There is also the chance for change.  Cole has the possibility for change.  He is given a chance to make his life better and to make up for the things that he has done to others.  It's up to him to take that chance and make it his own.  As one of the characters in the book says, healing is much more difficult than being punished, and Cole is about to learn that.  It's not just his change we see, but we also see the transformation of other characters who are connected to Cole as they witness everything that takes place in his life.  

While Cole is on the island he spots a large white bear, a spirit bear.  They supposedly don't live on the island and no one has ever spotted one anywhere near the island before, but Cole sees one.  The spirit bear encompasses so much of what Cole is experiencing while on the island and seems to reflect his own spirit.  

It's easy to get caught up in Cole's attitude and his anger and to go along with what he's feeling.  At the same time, you're just as angry with him as everyone is and you can't stand how he blames everyone around him.  

Ben Mikaelsen has shown us that surviving can be more than just about making it through nature, but about surviving your emotions and surviving life.  He gives kids a look at what is possible, even if you are a juvenile delinquent and angry at the entire world.  I enjoyed reading this again and hope that my students will also enjoy reading it.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi, I love your book review. Back in 2007, when I was going for my second Master's, I needed to create an extension project for "Touching Spirit Bear," which many educators use to enhance their students' understanding of the themes of this great book. Ben Mikaelsen even reached out to me after I posted my video montage so perhaps you may be able to utilize it with your students as well. It is a technically amateurish video as it was my first but it does capture the essence of the book. I hope you will enjoy it:
    Rita Favata