Educator’s Guide: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Educator’s Guide: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting scheduled for February 3, 2014.

The following information comprises a standards-based educator’s guide that the LAII has produced to support using Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Sáenz, Simon & Schuster, 2012) in the classroom.  The standards are not included here, but are included with the lesson plans in the PDF. The complete guide is available for download at no cost: Vamos a Leer Educator’s Guide: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

To read our thoughts on the novel, see our book review.


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.


  • 2013 Stonewall Book Award
  • 2013 Printz Honor
  • 2013 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten
  • 2013 Pura Belpré Author Award


Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a Chicano poet, writer, professor and painter who has lived most of his life near the U.S.-Mexico border. He calls himself a “fronterizo” — a Spanish word for border resident — because, he says, the border is integral to his identity and work.

He was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty-two miles north of the U.S. / Mexico border. He was the fourth of seven children and was brought up in a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family. He entered the seminary in 1972, a decision that was as much political as it was religious. After concluding his theological studies at the University of Louvain, he was ordained a Catholic priest. Three and a half years later, he left the priesthood.

At the age of 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.  Currently, Sáenz is a faculty member at UTEP and he continues to write.

Sáenz is the author of a previous book of poetry, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award. Cinco Puntos published two of his other books of poetry called Elegies in Blue and the now out of print, Dark and Perfect Angels. He is the author of numerous novels, books for children and young adults as well as a collection of short stories. His bestselling bilingual children’s books include: A Gift from Papá Diego,Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas and A Perfect Season for Dreaming. His award winning young adult novels are Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, and of course, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  LGBT themes are common in Sáenz’s work. In fact, Sáenz, who recently revealed that he is gay, has cited using these themes in his writing as a means to cope with and explore his own sexuality and identity.

(Information compiled from PSB Newshour and Cinco Puntos Press).


In addition to the lesson plans and activities included here, check out other curricula:

Social Studies and History:

Homosexuality is an important theme in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  Below are resources that have been created to facilitate teaching about sexuality, gay history, and gay rights.

  • Teaching Tolerance offers a number of resources for teaching about homosexuality and gay rights.  Below are three lesson plans from their cite:

Guided Reading Questions:

Part One: The Different Rules of Summer| Pages 5-56

  1. How do you feel about summer? What is your summer break like? Do you agree with Ari? Do you find yourself bored and miserable? (p. 5)
  2. Why is reorganizing the food bank important to Ari’s mom? (p. 8)
  3. What is the story behind the t-shirt that Ari wears to the pool? Why do you think he likes it so much now?  What inferences can you make about Ari’s relationship with his dad based on this conversation with his mom? (p. 9-10)
  4. What kind of guy do you think Ari is? Does he have a lot of friends? How do other guys his age treat him? (p. 12-13)
  5. What is Ari’s relationship with his siblings like? Why does he call himself a “pseudo only” child? (p. 13)
  6. How does Ari feel being around guys? Why? How does he explain it? (p. 15-16)
  7. What is Ari and Dante’s first conversation like? (p. 17-18)
  8. Compare and contrast Ari and Dante based on the way they approach reading—what they like, how they talk about it, etc. (p. 19-20)
  9. How does Ari describe his life, his friends and, his relationship with his dad before he meets Dante? (p. 22-23)
  10. What is Dante’s relationship with his father like? Contrast it with Ari’s. (p. 25-26)
  11. Dante changes something for Ari when they’re in his room reading poetry, what is it?
  12. What do you think Ari’s statement means: “Words were different when they lived inside of you”? (p. 31) Explain your answer.  Do you think you have words living inside of you?
  13. How does Ari’s father respond to the gift from Dante’s family? What surprises Ari about this? Why do you think Dante says “It’s about Mexican art. . .So you have to take it.”
  14. What happens when Ari looks through the telescope? What does he realize? (p. 42)
  15. Describe the different ways in which Dante and Ari respond to the boys with the BB guns and the death of the bird? How is this consistent with what we’ve learned about them so far? (p. 52-55)
  16. What does Dante represent for Ari? How is this different from Ari? (p. 56)

Part Two: Sparrows Falling from the Sky| Pages 57-108

  1. What kind of dreams does Ari have when he’s sick? What do you think these dreams mean? (p. 60-63)
  2. How does Ari getting the flu change his relationship with his father? What does his father realize? (p. 62-66)
  3. Why do you think Ari can’t talk to Dante about his dreams? (p.71- 73)
  4. What sketch does Dante leave for Ari? How does it represent Ari? How does that make Ari feel? (p. 74-76)
  5. As different as Ari and Dante are, they become incredibly close.  Why do you think they are so comfortable around each other? (p. 79-80)
  6. Why does Ari’s friendship with Dante make him feel even more alone? Have you ever felt like Ari where “I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own”? (p. 81)
  7. How does Ari’s mom describe his father after he returned from the war? (p. 90)
  8. What do you think, do we have to understand the people we love? (p. 91)
  9. How has Ari’s family dealt with his brother’s imprisonment? How do you think this has affected Ari? (p. 95-97)
  10.  Why do you think that it scares Ari that Dante is his first friend? (p. 98)
  11. Ari realizes that Mr. Quintana is brave, what makes him brave to Ari? Is Ari’s criterion one we typically use to determine bravery? Do you think it’s an accurate way to determine bravery? Why or why not? (p. 102)
  12. Ari says, “Why would I be sad” in response to Dante’s upcoming move.  How is this in contrast to the actions he takes when Dante almost gets hit? Which is the truer expression of how Ari feels about Dante? (p. 106, p. 116)

Part Three: The End of Summer| Pages 109-154

  1. What can Dante remember when he wakes up? Before you read ahead, predict: What do you think happened? (p. 111)
  2. What did Ari do when the car almost hit Dante? (p. 117)
  3. Why do you think Ari doesn’t like to be talked about as a hero? (p. 121-123)
  4. What kind of conversation do Ari and Dante’s parents have in the hospital? What does Ari learn from this conversation? (p. 123-126)
  5. Why do you think Ari makes up the post-op rules? Why does he need them? (p. 128-131)
  6. Why do you think Ari can’t look at the sketches? Why does the sketch pad make him angry? (p. 132) Why does it bother Ari that Dante gave him “a piece of himself that he had never given to another human being.”  Explain your answers.  (p. 141-142)
  7. How do you think Dante has already hurt Ari? Why is Ari so angry with him? (p. 143-144)

Part Four: Letters on a Page| Pages 155-232

  1. What do you think of Ari’s conversation with Gina and Susie? What do we learn about Ari and how others perceive him from this exchange? (p. 157-160)
  2. Do you think Ari is a mess? Do you think he spends too much time alone? Explain your answer. (p. 158)
  3. Do you think it is Ari’s legs that still hurt or something else? (p. 163)
  4. What private war do you think Ari is fighting? (p. 170)
  5. Does Ari miss Dante? Explain. (p. 167, p. 169-170)
  6. What is life like for Dante in Chicago? (p. 172-176)
  7. What do you think about dreams? Do you agree with Ari that dreams represent the things we’re thinking about, but that we don’t realize we’re thinking about? Have you ever had a dream like that? (p. 178)
  8. What do you think Ari’s dream about Dante and Ileana means? (p. 180)
  9.  Why do you think Ari wants other people to tell him how they feel, but he doesn’t want to return the favor? What does this say about Ari? His trust in other people? (p. 194)
  10. What is Ari’s life like his junior year? What kinds of things does he do? (p. 195-196, p. 198)
  11. What does Ari realize about himself? There is a difference between what he appears to be on the outside and what he’s like on the inside.  What is it? (p. 200)
  12.  Why do you think Ari doesn’t open the envelope with all of the information about Bernardo? What would you have done? (p. 209)
  13. What does Ari learn about Ileana? (p. 222-224)

Part Five: Remember the Rain | Pages 233-294

  1. How is Ari’s mom’s anger different than that of Ari or his father? (p. 237)
  2. How does Ari feel around Dante’s parents? Why do you think it’s so different with them than his own parents? (p. 242-244)
  3. Why is Dante afraid that he’s going to disappoint his parents? Do you think they will be disappointed in him when he tells them he’s gay? Why? (p. 252)
  4. What do you think Ari is so upset about? Why do you think that it’s only Dante that he can talk to? (p. 259-261)
  5. Why do you think Ari is so upset that Gina and Susie know the truth about the accident? (p. 264-266)
  6. What was Ari’s relationship with his Aunt Ophelia like? How much time did he spend with her? Why did he stay with her? (p. 281-283)
  7. Why was no one else from the family at Ophelia’s funeral? How do Ari’s parents feel about Ophelia and the life she chose? (p. 285-286)

Part Six: All the Secrets of the Universe | Pages 294-359

  1. Why do you think Ari feels safe in the car on the trip back from El Paso? (p. 297-298)
  2. What does Ari have to tell Mr. Quintana? (p. 302-303) What did Mr. Quintana suspect about Dante? Why does he think this? Do you think you can tell if someone is in love just by how they look at another person? Explain.
  3. What’s happened to Dante? (p. 304-306)
  4. What have Dante’s parents realized about Dante and his feelings for Ari? (p. 307-308)
  5. Why do you think Dante didn’t run like the other boy? (p. 309)
  6. How does Ari deal or cope with what has happened to Dante? What does he say to Daniel? What does he do to Julian? (p. 310-315) Why do you think Ari responds this way? Was this the best way to deal with it? How would you have responded?
  7. How do Ari’s parents react to what he’s done?  What do you think his dad means when he tells Ari he’s fighting the war in the worst possible way? (p. 317-319)
  8. Why do you think Ari’s parents choose now to tell him the whole story about Bernardo? (p. 320-324)
  9. What does Ari admire about Dante? (p. 333) What does Dante admire about Ari? (p. 334)
  10. How does Ari respond to learning that Daniel was over at Dante’s?  How would you feel about Daniel? Would you forgive him like Dante? (p. 339-341)
  11. Why do you think Ari’s mom decides they need to start having family meetings? (p. 344)
  12. What story does Ari’s dad tell him about Vietnam? Why do you think he tells him this story? What do you think he wants Ari to stop running from? (p. 346-348)
  13. What have Ari’s parents realized about him? (p. 348) How do they respond? What do they say to Ari? (p. 349-350)
  14. What advice is Ari’s father giving Ari when he says “Dante didn’t run.  I keep picturing him taking all those blows. But he didn’t run”? (p. 350)
  15. What has Ari realized about his parents? Do you think this is typically of most teenagers? Why? (p.353-354)
  16. How does Ari explain his feelings to Dante? What are the secrets of the universe for Ari? Why do you think Ari feels free now? What’s changed? (p. 357-359)

Reflective Writing Questions:

  1. Read the following questions taken from the very beginning of the novel (before the first chapter).
    Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? Why do we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that think in the pit of your stomach called desire?
    Choose one question and write an extended response explaining your answer.  Then, imagine that Ari or Dante answer the same question.  How do you think they would respond? Explain.
  2. What do you think of Ari’s statement, “The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea”? Do you think it’s an accurate statement at the beginning of the novel? At the end? Do you feel that way about your life? What could you do to change it?
  3. Dante’s father says the following to him. “Dante, you’re an intellectual.  That’s who you are.  Don’t be ashamed of that.” How would you describe yourself? Exchange intellectual for a word that describes you and explain why you chose it.  Have you ever struggled to accept that trait about yourself? Was it ever something you were ashamed of, or still are? Why?
  4. How does Ari’s friendship with Dante change his relationship with his father over the course of the novel? Why do you think his relationship with Dante impacts his relationship with his father?
  5. Why do you think Dante struggles with his identity as a Mexican.  Think about the times it comes up in the book (p. 38-39, 44-45, 72, 87 . . . .) is there a pattern in these incidents?
  6. Both Dante and Ari are strong, but in different ways.  Ari’s not afraid to fight, and other boys know not to attempt to bully him. Dante has a different kind of strength. He doesn’t fight, but he doesn’t run.  Use examples from the novel to compare and contrast the ways in which the two boys demonstrate their strength.
  7. Look at the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper that Dante mentions on page 185.  Do you think Dante is right, do you think it represents Ari?


Written by staff at the UNM Latin American & Iberian Institute (LAII), Vamos a Leer Educators Guides provide an excellent way to teach about Latin America through literacy.  Each guide is based upon a book featured in the Vamos a Leer book group.  For more materials that support teaching about Latin America in the classroom, visit the LAII website.  This guide was prepared 1/2014 by Katrina Dillon, LAII Project Assistant, and Neoshia Roemer, LAII Graduate Assistant.


11 thoughts on “Educator’s Guide: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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  7. I just found this and I love how it’s been turned into a lesson plan. I am going to follow and complete everything on here. Thank you so much:)

    • Hi Danny! Thanks so much for stopping by our blog, I’m so glad that you found us. I really enjoy all the books we create curricula for, but Saenz is one of my all-time favorite authors. This is one of my favorite books. Just in case you haven’t found our entire educator’s guide page, here’s the link where we list all the books we have guides for in case any of them would also be of use to you–

      We also do a book giveaway every month! We just gave away a copy of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (an AMAZING book, definitely check it out!). We’ve got you entered in the giveaway for Alarcon’s “Lost City Radio.” Good luck!

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