Mikaelsen, Ben 1952-

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Mikaelsen, Ben 1952-
(Benjamin John Mikaelsen)


Born November 24, 1952, in La Paz, Bolivia; son of John (a radio engineer) and Luverne (Wold) Mikaelsen; married Melanie Troftgruben (a critical care nurse), June, 1980. Education: Attended Concordia College, 1971-72, and Bemidji State University, 1975-79. Hobbies and other interests: Horseback riding, parachute jumping, motorcycle travel, sled-dog racing, flying airplanes, SCUBA diving, camping, music.


Home—233 Quinn Creek Rd., Bozeman, MT 59715. Agent—Sandra Choron, 4 Myrtle St., Haworth, NJ 07641. E-mail—[email protected]


Novelist. Owner of awards and office supplies business in Bozeman, MT, 1980-84; owner of woodworking business in Bozeman, 1984-85; writer, 1985-92. Military service: U.S. Army, 1973-75; stationed in Arlington, VA; attained rank of corporal; received Joint Service Commendation Medal.


Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Hellgate Writers, Montana Authors' Coalition.

Awards, Honors

Spur Award, Western Writers of America, 1992, Children's Book Award, International Reading Association (IRA), 1992, Golden Sower Award, Nebraska Library

Association, California Young Reader Medal, California Reading Association, and Indian Paintbrush Award, Wyoming Library Association, all 1995, and Flicker Tale Book Award, North Dakota Library Association, 1998, all for Rescue Josh McGuire; California Young Reader Medal, 1997, for Sparrow Hawk Red; Maryland Children's Choice Book Award, Maryland IRA Council, 1998, for Stranded; Notable Book for Children designation, American Library Association (ALA), 1999, and Golden Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Fiction, Western Writers of America, 1999, both for Petey; ALA Best Book for Young Adults designation, Young Adult Book Award, Pennsylvania Keystone State Reading Association, Flicker Tale Book Award, Sequoyah Book Award, Oklahoma Library Association, William Allen White Children's Book Award, Kansas Heartland Award for Excellence in Young-Adult Literature, Golden Sower Award, and Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award, all 2001, all for Touching Spirit Bear.


Rescue Josh McGuire, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1991.

Sparrow Hawk Red, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1993.

Stranded, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.

Countdown, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1996.

Petey, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.

Touching Spirit Bear, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.

Red Midnight, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

Tree Girl, HarperTempest (New York, NY), 2004.

Rescue Josh McGuire has been translated into Danish and French.


Countdown was adapted as an audiobook, narrated by Mikaelsen, Recorded Books, 1999; Petey was adapted as an audiobook, narrated by L.J. Ganser, Recorded Books, 2000; Touching Spirit Bear was adapted as an audiobook, Listening Library, 2001. Rescue Josh McGuire, Petey, and Touching Spirit Bear were optioned for film.


Ben Mikaelsen is the author of several novels that are based on the author's many adventures, which range from riding 1,600 miles from Minnesota to Oregon on horseback, to parachute jumping and SCUBA diving, to racing sled dogs. In addition, Mikaelsen has also had the unique experience of raising a 600-pound black bear named Buffy at his home in the mountains of Bozeman, Montana. Mikaelsen's adventure stories, which include Rescue Josh McGuire, Stranded, and Touching Spirit Bear, are not of the rugged "man versus nature" variety. Rather, they depict strong, capable young people battling life-shattering situations. In addition to combining adventure and coming-of-age themes, Mikaelson's books also make an appeal for peaceful coexistence between the natural and social worlds.

Born in Bolivia, Mikaelsen attended boarding school until age twelve, when he and his family moved to the United States. Raised speaking Spanish, he found the English language difficult, and as late as college he struggled with English grammar. However, in college he began to receive encouragement as a writer. As Mikaelsen once recalled, at one point his college English professor called him into a conference to comment on a paper he had written, telling the student that his grammar skills were those of a seventh or eighth grader. With much fear, Mikaelsen asked his professor if he should drop the class. Mikaelsen remembers the professor's words: "‘Oh no, no, no. I just finished reading two hundred and fifty essays, and out of them only one made me laugh and cry, and that was yours. You're a writer.’"

In 1980, Mikaelsen and his wife moved to the mountains of Bozeman, Montana, and four years later they adopted Buffy, a declawed black bear cub who had once been used in laboratory research. A bear is a huge commitment in both money and time; as Mikaelsen once told SATA: "I spend about three to four hours a day with him when he's out of hibernation, and a half hour or forty-five minutes a day when he's in hibernation, and that's still not enough time." "I learned a real important lesson with Buffy," the writer added, "and that's that you never tame a wild animal. Buffy is not a tame animal. If something threatens him, he is a six-hundred-and-some pound very, very dangerous animal."

Inspired by Mikaelsen's experiences with Buffy, as well as with animal rescue, Rescue Josh McGuire begins with the senseless killing of a mother bear by thirteen-year-old Josh's alcoholic father, Sam. Josh, who witnesses the killing, returns to the scene and finds the orphaned cub. Josh sets up a room for the cub, whom he names Pokey, in the family's barn and, despite Pokey's unpredictable biting, the two develop a very close and affectionate relationship. Meanwhile, Josh's father, devastated by the death of Josh's older brother, Tye, in a car accident a year before, has become abusive to his wife. Pokey, who reminds Sam of his wrongdoing in killing a mother bear, is doomed to almost certain death when Sam notifies the game warden of his existence. In response, Josh steals his brother's motocross bike and rides off with Pokey and his dog, Mud Flap. While the two are hiding in the mountains north of Yellowstone Park, a ferocious summer blizzard breaks out, severely testing the boy's survival skills. When Mud Flap is badly wounded in a bear attack, Josh must overcome his distrust of the adult world in order to save his beloved pet. With the involvement of the media, Josh's rescue becomes the subject of national attention and causes the public to learn about the injustices meted out to wild animals.

Sparrow Hawk Red, an adventure story about a young boy who lives among the homeless in Mexico, required its author to travel to Mexico and live among the urban homeless for several days, eating from garbage cans and sleeping on cold pavement, with only a piece of cardboard as a blanket. In the novel, Ricky Diaz, a thirteen-year-old flying ace, discovers that his mother's supposedly accidental death was actually an act of retribution taken by drug smugglers against his father, who used to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Avenging her death requires that Ricky take on the drug cartel in a dangerous mission that had been turned down even by his father. In Mexico he goes undercover as a homeless street kid and is helped in finding his mother's murderers by a street-smart teen named Soledad.

School Library Journal contributor Pat Katka offered a favorable assessment of Sparrow Hawk Red, asserting that "the characterization is strong, the depiction of street life realistic, and the theme timely." In Booklist, Chris Sherman favorably cited Ricky's growth as a result of his relationship with Soledad, who teaches him "the importance of his heritage and the dignity inherent in all people." Appreciative of "the pace and the chase," Roger Sutton praised Sparrow Hawk Red in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, calling Mikaelsen's novel "tremendously exciting" and "a dynamite story, certain to appeal to even hard-core nonreaders."

Mikaelsen's experience at a dolphin facility led him to write Stranded, a book that draws parallels between a twelve-year-old girl's search for independence and a pair of beached dolphins and their quest for freedom. The novel's heroine, Koby, lives with her feuding parents on a sailboat in the Florida Keys. Having lost her right foot in a bicycling accident four years earlier, Koby feels smothered by her parents. Self-conscious among her peers at school, she only finds peace while swimming or boating. One day Koby comes to the aid of a birthing dolphin caught in a net, and later puts herself at risk to rescue the same dolphin and its calf from dangerously shallow water. Hearing of Koby's special talents, peers and parents alike begin sensing and reinforcing in the girl a new feeling of competence.

Roger Sutton, reviewing Stranded for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, described Mikaelsen's protagonist as a "seaworthy heroine who makes things happen" and added: "Girls don't often feature in such fast-paced fare, so this is definitely welcome." Voice ofYouth Advocates contributor Ann C. Sparanese credited Mikaelsen with creating "another winning young character willing to take on adult-size adventure and triumph over impossible odds," and called Stranded "a heartwarming story, believable and at the same time grist for fantasies of heroism and wonderful deeds." Kliatt contributor Cecilia Swanson recommended the story to "animal lovers and readers who are dealing with their own struggle to be independent."

In Countdown fourteen-year-old teens Vincent and Elliot meet and become friends via shortwave radio. Despite their distance from each other, the two share a similar problem: their fathers expect their sons to follow in their own career paths. Vincent, living in an outlying village of Kenya, is supposed to become a traditional Maasai warrior, while Elliot is expected to work on the family ranch in Montana. Despite their fathers' wishes, Vincent longs to learn of the world beyond his village by going to school while Elliot dreams of becoming an astronaut, and through their friendship the teens are able to widen one another's horizons. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Brenda Moses-Allen wrote that "Mikaelsen provides a fascinating scenario of Elliot's nine months' training to become a payload specialist (one-mission astronaut)," citing the author's use of "vivid and exciting detail." School Library Journal reviewer Joel Shoemaker also appreciated Mikaelsen's "careful research" which "allows integration of details that lend authenticity to the tale." Also praising Countdown, Chris Sherman wrote in Booklist that "Mikaelsen weaves a provocative message through his novel and blends two fast-paced stories into a single, powerful whole."

Based on Mikaelsen's friendship with an elderly disabled man, Petey explores attitudes toward people with disabilities and the ways those attitudes evolved during the twentieth century. Petey, the title character, was born in 1920 with cerebral palsy, but he was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded and sent to a mental institution. For the next fifty years, Petey experiences one loss after another, as the caretakers he befriends move on without him. "Step by institutional step," wrote School Library Journal contributor Joel Shoemaker, "readers see how this tragedy could happen. More importantly, readers feel Petey's pain, boredom, hope, fear, and occasional joy." In 1977, Petey finally receives an accurate diagnosis, only to be taken away from everything and everyone familiar and transferred to a nursing home. While at the home, the now middle-aged Petey is defended from a group of teenage bullies by Trevor, a lonely eighth grader facing his own personal challenges. Petey and Trevor become friends, and Trevor's transformative experiences with Petey comprise the second half of the novel. "This book is much more than a tearjerker," proclaimed Shoemaker, "its messages—that all people deserve respect; that one person can make a difference; that changing times require new attitudes—transcend simplistic labels." GraceAnne A. DeCandido, writing in Booklist, also applauded Petey's message, noting, "there's a real strength here in the depiction of the person inside a disability and the dignity that is a divine right."

In the fall of 1998 Mikaelsen traveled to Alaska to research his book Touching Spirit Bear. The novel focuses on fifteen-year-old Cole Matthews, an angry, delinquent teen whose violent act against a fellow student results in arrest and a choice whether to go through the criminal justice system or receive Native American "Circle Justice." Claiming he desires repentance, Cole opts for Circle Justice, but commits to his year-long banishment to a remote Alaskan island while still blaming his dysfunctional family for his own problems. In the wilderness he finally confronts something that is more powerful than a giant white bear. After being attacked and seriously injured by the legendary creature, Cole is forced to take responsibility for his own situation. In School Library Journal Shoemaker wrote that "Mikaelsen's portrayal of this angry, manipulative, damaged teen is dead on" in an "adventure story with strong moral underpinnings." While noting that Cole's emotional reversal is "not entirely realistic," Kliatt contribu- tor Paula Rohrlick nonetheless praised Touching Spirit Bear as an "exciting outdoor adventure" and added that "Cole's transformation from juvenile delinquent to respectful observer of nature … will interest readers." Readers "with very different backgrounds with empathize with this tortured bully," concluded Marta Segal in Booklist.

Red Midnight takes readers to Guatemala, as twelve-year-old Santiago is left to protect his four-year-old sister Angelina after guerilla soldiers invade his family's village, killing everyone they can find, and setting the entire village on fire. Able to hide and thus escape the fate of the rest of his family, he then determines to flee to the United States and safety. Taking his Uncle Ramos's sea kayak, a machete, and what little food he can find, Santiago sails and paddles through shark-infested waters and militarized zones, and battles storms and days of oppressive heat on the ocean in an effort to reach freedom. Mikaelsen's protagonist "faces every challenge," explained Claire Rosser in Kliatt, "making a crucial hook from a nail to fish, keeping his little sister occupied and sane, [and] considering the difficult decisions about direction with nerves of steel." Praising the novel as "suspenseful," a Kirkus Reviews critic added that "the interactions between the siblings show Santiago's courage and love" and concluded that the author's many fans, "who expect him to produce a gripping tale of overcoming dangers, will not be disappointed." School Library Journal contributor Kathleen Isaacs dubbed Red Midnight a "terrific survival" tale and Rosser called it "a riveting, well-told story."

Mikaelsen returns to Central America in Tree Girl, which also focuses on the political genocide undertaken against the Mayan people during Guatemala's civil war. In this 2004 novel, which is based on a true story, fourteen-year-old Gabriela Flores takes a hike up a mountain near her forested Mayan village, to enjoy the serenity she finds from her perch atop the trees. Looking down onto her home, she watches as soldiers enter her village, kill her family and neighbors, and then set the town on fire. Fleeing north to safety in a Mexican refugee camp, her life is again saved through her ability to escape danger by tree-climbing. Once in camp, Gabriela focuses on searching for her younger sister, but ultimately is forced to confront the reality of her situation and find the same peace in her new life that she once found only while up in the trees. While noting that younger readers would have benefited from information that would put Gabriela's story into its 1980s context, Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman wrote that Mikaelsen's "prose is clear, direct, and graphic," yet "without sentimentality or exploitation." In School Library Journal Isaacs wrote that "the action moves quickly, and Gabi's courage and determination are evident throughout," while a Kirkus reviewer described Tree Girl as "a bitter and crucial story that needs to be told."

For Mikaelsen, writing takes place in life and experience as well as in an author's mind. Living his books by actively entering into the adventures he writes about is, according to the author, "a fun way to keep from getting to be a mole. I think writers tend to get reclusive. I don't find the actual writing of a book healthy. I have to spend too many hours by myself. Whenever I finish a rough draft, I just clear out and head down to some waterfall somewhere and sit, trying to get away from the computer terminal, away from being a human mole. "

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, December 15, 1991, p. 758; August, 1993, Chris Sherman, review of Sparrow Hawk Red, p. 206; August, 1995, p. 1949; January 1, 1997, Chris Sherman, review of Countdown, p. 856; November 1, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Petey, pp. 484-485; April 15, 2000, Jeanette Larson, review of Countdown (audiobook), p. 1562; January 1, 2001, Marta Segal, review of Touching Spirit Bear, p. 940; March 1, 2001, Anna Rich, review of Petey, p. 1295; February 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Tree Girl, p. 1053.

Book Report, September-October, 2001, Matthew Penn, review of Touching Spirit Bear, p. 64.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1991, p. 100; June, 1993, Roger Sutton, review of Sparrow Hawk Red, p. 324; May, 1995, Roger Sutton, review of Stranded, p. 317; November, 1996, p. 107.

Junior Bookshelf, December, 1992, pp. 258-259.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1993, p. 377; March 15, 2002, review of Red Midnight, p. 419; March 15, 2004, review of Tree Girl, p. 274.

Kliatt, January, 1997, Cecilia Swanson, review of Stranded, p. 9; January, 2001, Paula Rohrlick, review of Touching Spirit Bear; July, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of Red Midnight, p. 12; March, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of Tree Girl, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1998, p. 91.

Quill and Quire, May, 1993, review of Sparrow Hawk Red, p. 37.

School Librarian, February, 1993, p. 30.

School Library Journal, February, 1992, p. 108; May, 1993, Pat Katka, review of Sparrow Hawk Red, p. 127; June, 1995, p. 112; March, 1997, Joel Shoemaker, review of Countdown, p. 188; November 1, 1998, Joel Shoemaker, review of Petey, p. 124; March, 2000, Cindy Lombardo, review of Countdown (audiobook), p. 168; December, 2000, Sarah Flowers, review of Petey (audiobook), p. 81; February, 2001, Joel Shoemaker, review of Touching Spirit Bear, p. 122; October, 2001, Sarah Flowers, review of Touching Spirit Bear, p. 92; May, 2002, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Red Midnight, p. 157; October, 2003, Jennifer Ralston, review of Touching Spirit Bear, p. 98; April, 2004, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Tree Girl, p. 158.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1995, Ann C. Sparanese, review of Stranded, p. 306; June, 1997, Brenda Moses-Allen, review of Countdown, p. 112.


Ben Mikaelsen Web site,http://www.benmikaelsen.com (October 15, 2006).


Becoming the Author of Your Life (DVD), 2005.