Javier’s life is already set out for him, and he’s just entering middle school. He lives with his mom, who struggles with money and drugs. Sometimes his father’s around, when he’s between jail trips. Dontae and his friends are supposed to be in a gang and are constantly being asked to prove their own toughness. Javier struggles with all of this plus the fact that he likes to read and doesn’t actually want to court trouble, let alone be in it. When his school assigns him a service project working with the kids in special education, he knows he’ll never hear the end of it. What he doesn’t expect is to end up loving it–especially when he gets to read to a severely disabled Dante.
Mike Castan’s story about a young boy fighting against the inevitability of his own future is tailor-made for reluctant readers, but it also has broader appeal because it doesn’t pander to its audience. Although Castan’s prose is simple and there’s not a lot of time given to detailing the characters who inhabit Javier’s world, the story works quite well.
There’s also the fact that this will likely resonate with many of the readers in the intended audience. Javier’s father actually sums up the underlying problem Javier faces: “I mean, it’s easy to say you want to do something, but can you see the path? Shoot, man. I wanted to do a lot of things, but I had no idea how to even start.” Javier’s own interior conflict: fitting in with his peers or fighting for a chance to break free of his (doomed) future is mirrored in his father’s struggles to stay out of prison. Castan’s novel doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that Javier’s world doesn’t have a lot of good options for him.
Which is why reading with Dante is such a nice contrast to the darkness of Javier’s world. As he and Dante form a bond through reading, Javier starts to feel what it would like to be successful. This positivity should impact readers as well.
A moving story that should work especially well for tween and teen boys. Recommended.
Fighting for Dante by Mike Castan. Holiday House: 2012. Library copy. Read for Cybils 2012 Round 1 Panel.