Sunday, April 17, 2016

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is a wonderful story about two Mexican-American boys who don't feel like the fit in with the world around them. Aristotle, who goes by Ari, narrates the story from the time he turns fifteen until he's seventeen. The reader watches as he grows from a sensitive, insecure, and lonely boy, to a caring, aware young man. The story starts when he meets Dante at the swimming pool one day. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim and the two become fast friends. Dante shows Ari poetry and a variety of books, teaching him about birds, and the world around him. Ari protects Dante and shows him loyalty-- something only his family has given him in the past. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe discusses the themes of family, love, growing up, and right vs. wrong. Ari has a unique home-life in which his father rarely speaks, haunted from his time in the Vietnam war, a caring mother who teaches high school, two much older sisters, and a brother in prison, who Ari's parents never mention. Ari feels out of place and constantly wonders if that's just part of being fifteen, or if he is different. He eventually learns how to work through some problems with his family, who help him work through discovering himself and his true love for Dante, who has already openly admitted he's not interested in girls. Dante's family also plays an important role in the story: his father a successful professor, and his mother a social worker, adore Dante and Ari. They provide Ari and Dante with hope of what they could become and want to become in the future. Alire Saenz weaves through different emotions and scenarios beautifully, making the reader quickly turn the pages, hungry for more.

My one criticism of this book is that it is a little slow to getting started, in fact, I checked other reviews of the book to see if I was the only reader who had felt that way-- I was not. Ari is pretty grouchy through the beginning of the book; it can be difficult to read his monologues. However, around half-way through, this book really picks up momentum and hooks the reader.

As a teacher, I would use this book in a high school English class. It does a wonderful job painting a picture that although we all have differences, all humans have the same universal emotions and care, in general, about the same thing. I think it would be a really great book study for high school students, although, possibly a bit controversial, but only because it's a little non-traditional. This book would also probably be relateable for any teenager who has just "come out" or is trying to figure out how to (and has confided in the teacher or whoever is sharing the book-- one wouldn't want to make assumptions, in my opinion). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe also discusses some of the issues with hate crimes and lack of acceptance. These themes are hard to swallow while reading, but would be important pieces for discussion in a high school classroom.

I like that the main characters in this book are Mexican-American and homosexuals, since these groups can be so under-represented in books. The characters both seemed very genuine and authentic to me. Benjamin Alire Saenz himself is a Mexican-American who is gay, giving his characters even more credibility.  All characters also show power-- the mothers both play a traditional Hispanic mother role of being "over-protective" (something Ari and Dante constantly joke about), but also successful with good careers that their sons look up to them for. I found these characters to be real and inspiring. I also liked that the story took place in El Paso, Texas. The description of the desert and the night-sky added a really beautiful element to the book.

Pick up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by  Benjamin Alire Saenz if you're looking for a different, refreshing point of view. The book has won the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre Award, Lambda Literature Award, and the Michael Printz Award for Excellence-- Young Adult Literature, and it's easy to see why.

Here is a link to a book trailer for this book:

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