Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe | Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz | Illustrator: Cover illustration of landscape and sky: Mark Brabant | Hand-lettering and illustrations in sky: Sarah Jane Coleman | Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR | Date of Publication: 2012 | ISBN: 978-1-4424-0893-7 (pbk) | Number of pages: 359 | Grade Level: 7 and up | Literary Trend: SPOTLIGHT ON DIVERSITY
Sáenz, B.A. (2012). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Winner of countless awards and honors, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s, young adult novel of teenage angst and love is a rare opportunity for young readers to indulge in fine literary fiction that is not watered down or peppered with contemporary cultural references for the sake of tapping into the profitable young adult market. Set in late 1980’s Texas, Aristotle and Dante meet amidst a wash of expressionless peers and quickly their poetic tendencies create a bond that reignites Aristotle’s passion to explore life. Over the span of a summer vacation the two friends daydream about life and the oncoming reality of becoming adults. Tragedy is intersected more than once and readers are left to anticipate how the characters will react to each new challenge.
Alire Sáenz styles this novel with a cautious blend of anticipation and hopefulness, and the titular characters are seemingly on the verge of discovering their true selves at any given moment. Just as summer comes to a close, Dante is pulled away to join his parents for a semester in Chicago and Aristotle takes a chance at being the ennui-free teen he has become as school resumes. Letters are sent from Dante, each increasing tale-telling of his true feelings for Aristotle. Eventually as the boys reunite again for good, Dante is no longer withholding of his sexuality and Aristotle begins a slow descent into denial about his own feelings. Young Adult readers will attach onto the beautiful dialog between the boys and the heart wrenching inner dialog of Aristotle’s narration throughout the book. Similarly, the compassionate family dynamic of both boys will assure readers that the outcome, however tragic or beautiful, will be manageable and the boys will not be left alone to deal with their feelings.
Booklist cites the slow pace of the novel as “careful” and allowing of the characters “to find their place in the world, and to find each other” and Publishers Weekly describes the book as “a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality… a passionate reminder that love should be without shame.” The longevity of Alire Sáenz and his role as a serious author/poet who occasionally dips his feet in the Y.A. pond is a tribute to the books humble success. And the writing, doesn’t feel forced or an attempt to grab at the heartstrings of as many people as possible, readers will either ‘get it’ or move on. This book is a must for L.G.B.T.Q. youth, their allies, parents and teachers. Critical praise aside, the novel has also become a sort of Y.A. underground phenomenon, there is even an entire Tumblr hashtag devoted to anything Aristotle and Dante: block quotes, selfies of people holding their copies, fan art, fan fiction, pleas for a sequel, pleas for no sequel, and even ‘mix-tape’ tributes for the novel’s heroes.
The paradoxical nature of Aristotle’s character will give readers a chance to abandon their preconceived notions of what a young Mexican American boy can be, as he is tough and sensitive in the same breath. He has a muted sense of romanticism that is ready to burst at any moment and is slightly reminiscent of Goethe’s poor young Werther, and to a certain extent, Daniel Chacón’s Joey Molina, who is the epitome of the modern Strum und Drang Chicano.