We had another great book group meeting on Monday night! We so appreciate all of you who come out and spend the evening talking about literature with us! Sáenz latest was another book group favorite. With the multiple themes covered in this beautiful novel, it’s the perfect book to consider bringing into your classroom for February. Neoshia has been sharing different books and resources appropriate for focusing on various ways of teaching about civil rights, and this book offers one more way to integrate civil rights lesson plans into the classroom. In our Educator’s Guide we’ve included a number of lesson plans and resources for teaching about sexuality, gay history, and gay rights. As I discuss in more detail below, it’s also a unique love story that goes beyond just romantic love but touches on the love shared between friends and the love between parents and their children–perfect for this Valentine’s Day month!
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012
Age Level: 12 and up
Description (From GoodReads):
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
It’s no secret that we love Benjamin Alire Sáenz here at Vamos a Leer. He’s been a favorite author of mine since I discovered Sammy and Julianna in Hollywood two summers ago. This past summer our book group took a break from young adult literature and read Saenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I remember starting it with some hesitancy, fearing that I would be disappointed because there was no way it could be as moving as Sammy & Juliana. I was wrong. It was amazing. Despite this, I was hesitant again when I heard about Aristotle and Dante. All the reviews said it was excellent. It was continually placed on lists of award winning books. I put off reading it, afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Of course, my fears were completely unfounded. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It may be cliché to say that it is achingly beautiful, but I can’t come up with another way to describe it. While I cried through at least the last third of the book, I absolutely loved every minute of reading it.
Just like he did in Sammy and Juliana, Saenz has managed to get inside the head of a teenage boy and find a way to communicate the angst, loneliness, anger, and confusion of growing up in a way that no other writer I’ve read can do. While it’s certainly a powerful coming of age story that delves into the complex nature of identity while exploring both race and sexuality, to me, it’s really a story about love: the love between friends, the love between parents and children, and the love between two teenage boys. It’s so moving because of all of the love stories Saenz brings together in telling the story of Ari and Dante.
While Ari and Dante’s relationship develops into something more, it shows the kind of friendship everyone should get to have at least once in their life. Take Ari’s description of Dante: “I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me” (p. 308). This is the book that I want to give any student who’s ever struggled to accept who they are because they don’t fit the mold of what a typical teenager is supposed to be. For most, getting through those teenage years isn’t easy. It’s certainly not for Ari and Dante. What makes the book so powerful is the way Saenz describes these experiences. One of my favorite quotes is Ari describing trying to come to terms with who he is: “But the worst part was that those words were living inside me. And they were leaking out of me. Words were not things you could control. Not always. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Everything was chaos and I was scared” (p. 97).
It’s also an important book because it provides a necessary counter narrative to a discourse all too common in schools today. Too often we hear teachers, administrators, and even politicians claiming that the reason so many of our students of color are struggling in school is because their parents don’t care about their children’s success in the classroom. Numerous studies in education have proved this wrong, yet this line of thinking continues to be perpetuated. In Aristotle and Dante we get a different narrative, and it’s an important one. Here we have two sets of loving and supportive Mexican-American parents who are involved in their children’s lives. While the reality of this may not be uncommon, it’s not a story line that we hear often—either in the news or in the fiction presented in our classrooms. This alone makes it a significant novel for me.
While I mentioned that I cried through much of the book, I don’t want that to keep you from reading it. There are parts of the book that are sad, parts that may hurt your heart. But, it’s not a sad story. In her own review of the book Elizabeth Burns writes about how when watching movies her mother will say, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” I can understand that. Sometimes you get so attached to the characters that you’re not sure you can bear it if they don’t make it through okay. If you understand that fear, then let me assure you, Ari and Dante will be okay.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has received a number of awards: Stonewall Book Award (2013), Printz Honor (2013), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten (2013), and the Pura Belpré Author Award (2013)
Click here to be taken to our Educator’s Guide for the book.
If you’re interested in hearing what Benjamin Alire Sáenz has to say about the book, read this interview with the School Library Journal.