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

  • Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  • Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 1442408928
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 368
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction, LGBT literature, romance
  • Award(s): Stonewall Book Award; Printz Honor; Pura Belpre Author Award; see entire list here.

Author information: Benjamin Alire Saenz is a poet, novelist, and anthologist who has written books for children, teenagers, and adults. A short biography of the author can be found on Simon & Schuster’s website. School Library Journal interviewed Saenz last year about his inspiration for Aristotle and Dante, how his experiences helped shape the story, and his current projects. The interview is available here

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus all gave this book starred reviews. All three reviews mention Saenz’s masterful storytelling and narrative skill, and they all agree that the relationships within the novel are explored with honesty and compassion. PW calls the book “a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love—whether romantic or familial—should be open, free, and without shame”.

Readers annotation: Aristotle and Dante don’t have much in common, but when they become best friends, they realize how similar they really are.

Summary: Aristotle and Dante are both loners—Dante is a gay, unflaggingly optimistic know-it-all who loves philosophy and isn’t afraid to cry, and Aristotle is an angry and self-deprecating boy who will (literally) throw himself in front of a moving vehicle to protect the people he loves. Aristotle and Dante improbably become best friends one summer and discuss books, growing up Mexican-American, and their hopes and fears. Ari spends time with Dante’s family, who have a “no-secrets” rule which contrasts sharply with the unspoken secrets in his own home–his older brother is in prison, and his father is haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam war. When Ari’s family moves to Chicago, Dante tells Ari that he loves him, which forces Ari to question whether his feelings for Dante go beyond friendship. When Dante is beaten up and hospitalized for being gay, Ari can no longer deny that he is in love with Dante.

Evaluation: This novel is very tenderly written and has a compelling narrative voice that teenagers, gay or straight, will relate to. The story does a good job exploring the intricacies of friendship as well as dealing with self-hate and anger, and the happy ending sends a positive message that things really do get better. The relationship between Ari and his parents is also a strength of the novel; Saenz does a great job of depicting a loving parent-child relationship that is also flawed and plagued by secrets. The richness of the prose and the dialogue will keep readers riveted and make this novel a page-turner in spite of the fact that it is slower paced than other YA titles.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  The writing in this novel is gripping and beautiful, and elevates the story to a higher level. The plot examines what it is like to be different, both culturally and because of your sexual preference, but these examinations avoid being trite or preachy and they feel authentic. Saenz crafts a believable friendship and romance between these two characters, and the tension in the novel builds naturally to a satisfying conclusion.
  • Popularity4/5  Saenz’s prose will captivate readers and the relationship between Aristotle and Dante is realistic and thoughtfully portrayed. Readers who are uncomfortable with homosexuality may find the content of this book objectionable, but open-minded and unprejudiced readers will enjoy seeing Dante and Ari’s relationship unfold. Readers who picked up the novel believing it would be a story about friendship may be disappointed if they don’t enjoy romance novels.
  • Appeal factors: LGBT interest, strong narrative voice, coming-of-age novels, Mexican-American perspective, lyrical writing.

Read-alikes: 

  1. David Levithan’s books could be a good fit for readers interested in LGBT themes. His works, including Boy Meets Boy and his collaborative novel with John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson highlight romantic relationships between gay teens and questions of identity and acceptance.
  2. Readers who enjoyed Aristotle and Dante  because of the unique narrative perspective may enjoy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This novel is told by a Native American teen who struggles with his identity and growing up outside of the societal norm.

Book talk ideas: Talk about Dante and Aristotle both being outcasts and not having a lot of friends, and how meeting each others helps them both realize new things about themselves and the world around them. Also focus on the strong relationships between characters in the book–Dante and Ari, Ari and his parents, Dante and his parents. Another important thing to mention would be the LGBT themes and the struggles that Dante especially faces in terms of bullying and violence. To make this talk interactive, ask potential readers if they’ve ever been victims of bullying, or mention that this novel is set in the 1980s and ask if they think Dante would be subjected to the same treatment today.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Ari and Dante seem like polar opposites. Why do they become friends? What traits attract them to the other, and are they really as different as they initially seem?
  • Why do Ari’s parents refuse to talk about Bernardo? How does this impact Ari’s relationship with them?
  • Although Ari and Dante are both the main characters of the novel, the book is told from Ari’s perspective. Why do you think the author made this choice?

Reason for reading: Although there’s an old adage warning us against judging a book by its cover, I have to say that the cover is what initially attracted my attention and made me pick this book up. The summary of the book did not reveal the fact that this was in many ways a love story–I thought it would be about two boys and their friendship and coming of age. I appreciated that I didn’t know this information when I started reading the book, because I felt like I came to the realization with Dante, making for a more immersive reading experience. I also wanted to read this book because the protagonists were Mexican-American, which I felt would be an interesting perspective and one that I’m not familiar with.

Additional relevant information: In the School Library Journal interview mentioned above, Saenz says that it was an honor to receive the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre Award, and the Printz Honor, because he feels like he belongs to all three of those communities and felt validated by recognition from each of them. He also discusses his choice to include supportive adults in this novel as well as philosophizes on the importance of father/son relationships, a theme he explores in another of his YA titles, He Forgot to Say Goodbye.

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