Mike Castan’s heart is in the right place with Fighting for Dontae, which he dedicates from “one-at-risk student to another”. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it because of its stereotypes.
First, there is Castan’s portrayal of Latin American youth. Main character Javier is poor and belongs to a gang. He is so poor that his family doesn’t have a television or cell phone, nor can they afford for him to buy new clothes for school or attend the movies. To fit in with the gang, Javier wears a white t-shirt and baggy pants. This describes all of his friends too, who have cash and luxuries only when they steal them, except some of them also get into using chains, dealing drugs, and invoking revenge which lands them in juvenile court. In addition, Javier’s mother struggles to hold onto a minimum-wage job and his dad spends most of his time in jail. Don’t get me wrong. Poverty, gangs, and dysfunctional families do exist. It’s even commendable that Castan portrays Javier as being conflicted about his delinquent lifestyle and eventually turning away from it. But why does he portray only the Latino youth as being in trouble? And why is it that when Javier becomes friends with smart and wealthy classmate, she’s white and Jewish? I don’t live in California, so I can’t claim to have an understanding of what life is like there for Latino youth. It just seems that Castan could have created a story with fewer stereotypes and more complex individuals.
Second, there is Castan’s portrayal of Special Education students. Initially, my biggest complaint was that Castan fell into the trap of many authors who feature those with special needs. The students in Fighting for Dontae aren’t portrayed as individuals in their own right, but rather serve as agents of change in Javier’s life. Almost from the start, the reason Javier likes to escape to the Special Education room is that in there he feels “as if he is doing something important”. As I continued reading, however, I felt offended that Castan again resorted to stereotypes, in that the students with special needs are said to be always happy. The rare moment they aren’t happy, the Special Education teacher tells Javier, “Just because he’s in my class doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel. He’s human….” While this is true, it feels heavy-handed. Following this conversation is another line I hate, “My students are very sensitive. They know who’s there to help them. They know where your heart is.” Special Education students aren’t mystical beings and it’s a disservice to portray them in this way.
There is better Latino literature out there for young people, as well as more complex books about gang life or about special education students. Skip Castan’s book.
My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.
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