Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

DanteBibliographic Information:

Sáenz, B. A. (2012). Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR. (978-1442408920)

Plot Summary:

Two lonely young men become friends over a summer when Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. Aristotle (Ari) likes to be alone and is very comfortable with silence but uneasy with the secrets in his family. Dante is a reader, artistic, and appears to be comfortable with himself and his loving family. Together they share the awkward moments and the experimentation that goes along with being sixteen.

Critical Evaluation:

There is so much to talk about in this book; the poetry of the prose, the multidimensional characters; the different relationships of the young men with their parents, their relationship with one another.

To begin with, the pacing is an important aspect of this novel. Ari wants to understand his father and what happened to him in Vietnam. He wants his parents to talk about his brother who is in jail. He needs to understand himself and who he wants to be. This takes time and introspection and Sáenz gives him that. He allows the characters to walk in the rain, laugh about their names, read books, and write letters to each other and to themselves in a journal. There is action in the novel but allowing the reader to breathe and take in the imagery strengthens the emotion and reaction from the reader.

The theme of identity is also prevalent in the novel. The two boys are Mexican but they are not always aware of what that label should mean to them. At times, it appears to be a negative. Dante’s mother wants him to wear shoes so he does not look like a poor Mexican. At other times, the characters wear their heritage proudly and even worry that they are not Mexican enough. Ari particularly struggles with his identity. He tells his mother, for example, that he wants to be a bad boy – to the point that he convinces a drunk to purchase beer for him. But, he will not drink and drive and he refuses to do drugs when he is offerred them. He has conflicted feelings towards his father and cannot decide if he should force the conversation about his brother who is in jail that his parents appear to have forgotten.

Reader’s Annotation:

Ari and Dante are very different young men. Ari is dark and quiet. Dante is sensitive and artistic. Together they are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in their world.

Information About the Author:

Benjamin Alire Saenz surrounds himself with writing. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas in El Paso and is a poet and author of books for teens and adults. He has won several awards for his writing including the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his short story collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, and a young adult novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood.

Born in 1954 in Old Picacho New Mexico, he grew up in “a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family” (Benjamin Alire Sáenz). He took theological studies at the University of Louvain and was later ordained a Catholic priest. He left the priesthood, however, three years later. At 30, he returned to school. In 1988 he received the Wallace E. Stegner Followship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the University of Texas in El Paso to teach.

For more information please visit his page at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Genre:

  • Realistic fiction

Curriculum Ties:

  • Social justice
  • English
    • Stereotypes
    • Character development
    • Coming of age

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Make a booklist of the books that are referred to in the novel
  • Read from p. 83 when Ari is talking about writing in his journal and rules
  • Make a journal booklist

Coming of age, family, friendship
Reading Level/Interest Age:

  • Ages 12 and up

Challenge Issues:

  • Homosexuality

Challenge plan:

  1. Listen to the critic to understand what the concerns are.
    • Ask if he/she has read the book
    • Ask if he/she has spoken to his/her child about the concerns.
  2. Explain rationale for including the book in the collection
    • Provide CLA Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom and CLA’s Position Statement of Diversity and Inclusion documents
    • Provide school’s selection policy
    • Provide list of reviews/lists
  3. If necessary, provide a “Request for Reconsideration form”

http://www.npr.org/2013/02/20/172495550/discovering-sexuality-through-teen-lit

Why did you include this resource in the titles you selected?:

Awards:

  • 2013 Printz Honor Award
  • 2013 Stonewall Award
  • 2013 Belpré Award
  • Top Ten choice for the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list

Reviews:

“This poetic novel takes Ari, brooding and quiet, and with a brother in prison, and Dante, open and intellectual, through a year and a half of change, discovering secrets, and crossing borders from which there is no return.”

“Sáenz does—he treats his characters carefully, giving them space and time to find their place in the world, and to find each other.”

“Meticulous pacing and finely nuanced characters underpin the author’s gift for affecting prose that illuminates the struggles within relationships.”

References:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz. ( 2013). Retrieved from http://www.cincopuntos.com/authors_detail.sstg?id=3

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