Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published February 21, 2012
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of YA books. I love The Hunger Games trilogy. I devoured Libby Bray’s The Diviners (and am anxiously awaiting the August release of the next book in the series, Lair of Dreams). I enjoyed Rebecca Stead’s homage to Madeleine L’Engle, When You Reach Me.
But the YA books that always get me the most are those that I know will help kids navigate the rough waters of adolescence. Because, let’s be honest: being a teenager (and a “tween,” for that matter) isn’t the best.
Looking back, I had it relatively easy. I was pretty happy, school was easy, and I had a lot of friends. But I was super awkward, my family was not well-off, and my parents had recently divorced. Also, I looked like this: (And, if that’s not enough to convince you of my awkwardness, you can take a gander at the gem I posted here.)
Even when a kid is not suffering from some unspeakable tragedy, those years can be a rough time. And that is why I appreciate books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which tackles topics like racism, eating disorders, bullying, sex, and alcoholism) and The Fault in Our Stars (which deals with love and teen cancer). These are books that acknowledge how awkward and hard being a teen/tween can be, in a way that is not condescending or annoying or contrived. They acknowledge that teenagers have real problems and go through real stuff. And they help kids feel normal.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is another book that falls into that category. Ari and Dante are two Mexican-American fifteen-year-olds who meet at the local pool during the summer and become best friends. They are both a little weird, very smart, lonely, and misunderstood. Ari (named after his grandfather) is the first-person narrator, and he is full of teen angst:
I felt sadder than I’d ever felt.
I knew I wasn’t a boy anymore. But I still felt like a boy. Sort of. But there were other things I was starting to feel. Man things, I guess. Man loneliness is much bigger than boy loneliness. And I didn’t want to be treated like a boy anymore. I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own. In a strange way, my friendship with Dante made me feel even more alone.
Maybe it was because Dante seemed to make himself fit everywhere he went. And me, I always felt that I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t even belong in my own body—especially in my own body. I was changing into someone I didn’t know. The change hurt but I didn’t know why it hurt. And nothing about my own emotions made any sense.
He feels like Dante is so confident, so sure of himself, so happy (“Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”). Those qualities seem both totally foreign and extremely admirable to Ari. Dante teaches him to swim, forces him to do silly, childish things (like play made-up games outside in the rain), and encourages him to talk.
But their friendship becomes more complicated when Dante finally confesses that his feelings for Ari are not platonic. Dante is gay, and he is in love with Ari. The two are forced to figure out how to maintain their friendship in light of this confession, and Ari must help Dante with his struggles to come out to his very loving and supportive parents (whom he fears he will disappoint) and with the bullying and hate crimes he later endures.
This is a coming-of-age story with a lovely ending. It is a story of self-discovery and self-acceptance, family, and friendship. But it is also a book that recognizes how difficult and lonely and hard it is to make the transition from childhood to adulthood (and how important it is to seek out and ask for help when you need it). It highlights the importance of honesty and communication (and the problems that can be caused by failures to communicate). It acknowledges that parents (and adults, in general) are flawed people. It touches on sweet lessons, like: “To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.”
Like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Fault in Our Stars and other books of their ilk, this is a YA book that does not patronize kids. It sheds light on some of their struggles and gives credit to them for being able to handle them maturely and deftly (despite the difficulty and emotions inherent in such situations). And, most importantly, it acknowledges teens’ curiosity and intelligence and heart. This is definitely not the best-written book in all the land . . . but it is fast-paced and fun to read. And, in light of all the good messages the book contains, I am willing to let that flaw go.
- Winner of the 2013 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature
- 2013 Michael L. Printz Award Nominee
- 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult
Who should read it: Mom (i.e., people who love touching YA books and will cry and cry when she reads this one).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee in 2009; Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction Runner-up in 2009)
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (an Indie Next List pick for January 2015; a LibraryReads List selection for January 2015)