YA Book treats an Important Subject With Sensitivity

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon and Shuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, NY, 2012.

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

Aristotle Mendoza is fifteen. One steamy hot morning, he wakes up to a song on the radio he hates. “I was bored. I was miserable…The DJ was annoying. He’s yelling: ‘Wake up El Paso. It’s June fifteenth, 1987!’” But Ari doesn’t feel like waking up. It’s not until the DJ plays La Bamba, that he thinks he might be able to cope with this day.

Ari greets his mother in the kitchen and we immediately see the two of them have a warm relationship. Ari and his father – more problematic. Ari’s father fought in Vietnam and the war changed him. “So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

One of those tragedies is that he has a brother, eleven years older than he, in prison. His parents don’t talk about him. There are no photos of him in the house. It’s as if his brother doesn’t exist.

On this day, though, Ari’s life will take an unexpected turn when he goes to the local pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he sits on the edge of the pool, eventually floating in the shallow end. And then he hears a voice: “I can teach you how to swim.” When it turns out the boy’s name is Dante, “…we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing…I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names?”

These are smart, funny teens who know who their namesakes were. They ride the bus and make up stories about the riders. They argue about comics vs. literature. “I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. ‘That’s why you like Spider-Man.’” Dante, on the other hand, likes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Ari reads it and tells Dante he hates it, when in fact, he loves it. Then Ari discovers it’s one of his father’s favorite books. “I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.”

And so, Ari, a loner, a kid who doesn’t seem to fit in, has found a friend. He has to admit to himself, “Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.”

This is a novel that begins with two young teens finding each other. It ends with them finding themselves and learning what it means to be true to who you are. And they both, over the next two years, grow up.

This novel, of two boys coming to terms with their sexuality, is beautifully written as can be attested to by the four awards it received: The Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre’ Award and the Lambda Literary Award. If you haven’t already read this one, I encourage you to read it now. You know you have the time.

 

 

About stephanielowden

I am the author of two middle grade novels: Time of the Eagle, published by Blue Horse Books, and Jingo Fever, published by Crickhollow Books. Time of the Eagle is a survival story and takes place during the fur trade era in the Lake Superior region. Jingo Fever takes place during WWI and deals with bullying amidst an anti-immigrant atmosphere.
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1 Response to YA Book treats an Important Subject With Sensitivity

  1. jan penn says:

    Thanks Stephanie. I shared this with our daughter Aliina and some of her friends. Our twins are now 13 and in 8th grade. They hang out with a wonderful and stimulating  group of young ladies. A few years ago the group decided to write/illustrate a mystery book together online. It was about a young girl in an orphanage. It was fascinating to watch the collaboration and feedback to each other. In many respects they reminded me of our group of young people  at that age-Gail, you, Bob Twig, I-all invested each other, curious and learning together.

    I have been reading some reports about the challenge of Covid-19 on teens. There has been two messages. First, many are bored and distressed being locked in with their parents. Second, is the 500% increase in  screen time. I know the twins spend maybe 2 hours at most with online school. They text their close group of friends but are sharing ideas for sewing masks etc. They have all been sewing and sending masks first to family and then taking to community center and hosp’s. There has been some gameplaying but mostly with friends. They have also been reading a ton and knitting/crocheting/drawing/painting.Our phone conversations affirm they are not bored and staying connected with friends even at a distance.

    It will be interesting to hear, in years to come, how these youth look back on this pandemic. Every generation has at least one transformational event during the time of their coming of age. It could be this “stay at home” experience leads to a great twist on an old genre of children’s literature.

    Thanks as always for sending your reviews. This one looks great. I will let you know what the girls have to say.

    Jan

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