Javier’s life is going nowhere fast. He hates seventh grade, his pop’s locked up, and his mom can’t even afford to buy him shoes. He and his friends are in a gang, but hanging out with the Playaz is like asking for trouble from the cops: eventually something bad is going to go down.
The above description comes from the inside flap of Fighting for Dontae, a juvenile book from Mike Castan. His first book Price of Loyalty, which received mixed reviews, has been compared to Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers.
Mike Castan is a writer from California who has been an actor and a middle-grade substitute teacher. Although I checked several online sources, this is the only information I could find about Castan. Can anyone provide more biographical details?
A main reason for my researching the cultural setting of the novels that I’m reading for MOSAIC is to determine are the books free of bias, prejudice, and stereotypes. Not being of Latino background, or being familiar with gangs except from television, it proved difficult for me to evaluate these elements of Fighting for Dontae. When it came to the portrayal of the special needs class in which the main character Javier helps out, I did feel more qualified because of being a resource teacher.
Castan’s first book Fighting for Loyalty received criticism from Kirkus as being an “onslaught of Latino caricatures” including unemployed women working in the kitchen, abusive men running illegal business, and young male adults serving time in prison. His second book, Fighting for Dontae, describes gangs as shaving their heads and wearing t-shirts with baggy pants. Moreover, his mom struggles with drugs and his dad spends the bulk of his life in prison. These are images which are most familiar to me from news reports of gangs and troubled youth, and so could be stereotype, but reviewers have not faulted Castan on these points. Instead, reviewers commend Castan for writing a semi-realistic and hopeful novel for reluctant readers. REFORMA, an organized formed to promote the development of library collections to include Spanish-language and Latino oriented materials, also recommended it.
With regards to special needs classes, Castan accurately describes the three main categories: behavior disorder, learning disabled, and mental retardation. Then he focuses on students with severe needs or those who have a mixture of physical and mental needs. My complaint isn’t that Castan portrays stereotypes, although at times he does, but that he falls into the trap of many authors who feature individuals with special needs. The students that Javier meets aren’t portrayed as individuals in their own right, but rather serve as agents of change in Javier’s life.
Because Castan featured a special education room for one of his settings, I searched for an overview article about the field. Bright Hub lists students with physical disabilities, the type whom Javier helped, as including epilepsy, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, orthopedic impairments, blood disorders and heart conditions. Moreover, the article lists physical therapy and occupational therapy are two of the services that are sometimes provided to students with physical disabilities in the public school system. There are also various accommodations provided such as speech/language therapy, communication boards, voice synthesizers or other assistive technology.
As for Latino literature, in an article published by the School Library Journal, librarians spoke up not about a lack of books but about a lack of awareness of this culture. One librarian noted that titles “unfortunately…just don’t get into the mainstream market. Instead of being displayed with the ‘regular’ books, they’re set apart. Until we make our books an integral part of children’s literature, they are not going to be noticed. We have to make them visible.”
I also found two book lists: