Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Aliré Sáenz

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This was a beautiful book, and you should read it.

Published in: 2012

Pages: 359, but there are many partial-pages, the chapters are very short, and there is lots of dialogue.

The protagonist: Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza, a rather angsty fifteen-year-old attempting to live inside his own head and figure out the world from his vantage point as the youngest-child-by-several-years growing up in El Paso, Texas. We meet Ari in the summer of 1987 in between his sophomore and junior years of high school.

The gist in 100 words or less: Ari has, according to his first-person narrative, never had a friend. As summer continues and Ari seeks refuge from the prying eyes of his parents and the middle fingers of the neighborhood boys, he decides to go swimming in the public pool in town. There, Dante, an optimistic, forward, inquisitive fellow fifteen-year-old boy, invites himself to teach Ari how to swim. Thus begins a unique and unforgettable friendship during which the two boys spend the summer, and most of the next year and a half, attempting to “discover the secrets of the universe”, their families, and themselves.

Great stuff: Sáenz is a poet, and the writing is amazing and profound without being flowery or, surprise surprise, containing a single extra word. Ari is a very round, believable character and my heart broke for him on almost every page–not so much for the Big Things he was dealing with, but because Sáenz does SUCH a beautiful job portraying how difficult it is to grow up, especially when you aren’t Someone Who Talks.

Both Ari and Dante’s parents are pretty awesome, which was refreshing.

Also, there is a dog named Legs, which I found hilarious.

Meh: Not much. I found it a little lame that in the end, which I thought was very well done, Ari purports to have found “all the answers”, which after his very-believable inside-the-head narrative for the previous 358 pages, was a little too serendipitous. He certainly found MANY answers, but all?

Best quote: “Senior year. And then life. Maybe that’s the way it worked. High school was just a prologue to the real novel. Everybody got to write you–but when you graduated, you got to write yourself. At graduation you got to collect your teacher’s pens and your parents’ pens and you got your own pen. And you could do all the writing. Yeah. Wouldn’t that be sweet?” (335).

Parent/teacher alert: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Ari and Dante do some what-I-imagine-must-be-very-typical hemming and hawing about using drugs and alcohol, both of which they end up doing, but not without some guilt about What Their Parents Will Think. There are parties, and other teenage characters are clearly more experienced (and less guilt-ridden) at getting ahold of beer and marijuana. Ari and Dante draw a serious line at drinking and driving, and the parents in the story make that line very clear as well.

Also–BIG SPOILER HERE–one of the several Big Issues in this story is Dante’s figuring-out-of his own sexuality, his realization that he “wants to kiss boys” and what that means for Ari and Dante’s friendship, Dante’s family and the way Dante is treated in the community. It is beautifully done, and I think the best thing about this book is how those issues are woven in with all the other Big Issues Of Growing Up, and for Ari it’s just one of the many things that he has to figure out.

Ari and Dante talk a lot about ethnic and cultural differences, and discuss stereotypes about “Mexicans” (wondering if and how they fit into these stereotypes) on more than one occasion.

I would share this story with my own teenage children in a heartbeat. Ari struggles from a very real, honest, good-guy place and just wants to love everyone, even when the people around him make that difficult. I found myself nodding. A lot.

Read if you liked: Speak, actually–I found myself wishing Ari could talk to Melinda, although other than the fact that they’re both coming of age, their circumstances don’t really resemble each other. Anything about friendship and/or coming-of-age young menMy Most Excellent Year, Tales of the Madman Underground, Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have

Not good for: Those who need a lot of action and a fast-paced plot. The story certainly moved along, but the beauty of it is in the emotions of the characters rather than the actual events.

What my students think: No readers yet. I will be highlighting this one this coming year, though–it’s one of those Read This And Become A Better Person books.


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