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Diver hopes his pirate book will hook young readers

Some pretty remarkable things tend to happen after Scott Mitchen visits with schoolchildren.

The kids click off their TVs, log off their computers, shun video games and tend to forget all about their iPods and mp3 players. They run to the library. They devour books. A trio of brothers even once sold their PlayStation 2 and used the money to buy a metal detector. Guided by their grandfather's stories of an old dance hall and how he used to crawl under its floorboards to retrieve lost change, the boys filled their pockets until they jingled.

Mitchen of Ashland is a veteran diver and longtime shipwreck hunter who knows a thing or two about scallywags and cowardly swabs. And after discovering a real pirate ship off the Virgin Islands in 1990, he can thrill just about anyone with tales of treasure.

For those not-so-easily enthralled, he pulls out underwater photos -- and then daggers, shackles, coins and other bounty taken from the La Trompeuse, captained by Hamlyn, the leader of a vicious band of pirates in the 17th century. The vessel went down in 1683 with 24,000 pounds of silver and gold in her holds.

"The whole idea is to get kids off the couch and into the mud, digging for history. You can't put a price on that," said Mitchen, who displays the loot at his International Explorations museum in Ashland when he's not hauling it around to put on view. "To let someone be able to touch a real pair of slave shackles or a bicep bracelet once worn by a real pirate is memorable. Kids remember that. Suddenly, history means something to them.

"It's real history," he said in the wake of last weekend's Duluth Maritime Festival and the visit in the Duluth-Superior harbor of three vintage tall ships. "It's real treasure and real pirates. And it does get kids to read. For years I've been teasing them I'd write a book for them."

That teasing ended this summer when Mitchen published his first book, "Will of the Pirates," about a 12-year-old boy who works as a deckhand aboard a merchant ship in England in the 17th century. Will's dreams of seeing pirates become all-too-real in what Mitchen promises will be just the first of five "Will" adventures.

The series is fiction, he said, but many of its characters, ships and ports -- and all of its richly detailed history -- are as real as the cave depicted on the front cover. Mitchen found the hideout shortly after discovering the La Trompeuse. Artist Tracey Preston Cook, who runs a marketing company in Duluth, captured it in eye-grabbing color.

In addition to the La Trompeuse, Mitchen, a deep-sea explorer and professional treasure hunter, discovered with his partner, Tony Kopp, a French fleet wrecked in 1678 off the Venezuelan coast. A nonfiction book about the discoveries, written about five years ago, will be published after the first or second "Will" book, Mitchen said.

After that, he holds out hope that "Will" will be made into a movie.

"This has screenplay written all over it," he said.

Imagine then the number of kids trading in their video games and televisions for books and real-world adventure.

"We're using the worldwide love of pirates to do something good," Mitchen said. "We're getting kids reading and we're getting them out exploring."

You can't put a price on that.

The Duluthn News Tribune, like the Red Wing Republican Eagle, is part of Forum Communications Co.

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