Wednesday, June 10, 2015

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

Genre: Realistic Fiction
Grade Level: 9-12
Interest Level: 8-12
Themes: identity, coming of age, family, love, friendship, loyalty, trust, persevering, LGBTQ, Latino identity
Awards: Lambda Literary Award, Stonewall Book Award, Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award , Pura Belpre Award, Michael L. Printz
Sensitivity Issues : Homosexuality

What I Thought
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of theUniverse is another favorite and responsive summer read.  It is lyrical, passionate and  quietly draws you into the memorable and emotional story of Aristotle(Ari) Mendoza and Dante Quintana, two Mexican American 15 year olds, who spend a year growing and learning about friendship, family, love and manhood.

Although I immediately loved Saenz’s spare, honest sentences, I had to consider how engaging a story it would be for some underserved and/or reluctant readers.  Admittedly, the pace is langorous, and struggling readers might  have trouble getting into it. While not exactly “action” packed, it is clear, vivid and compelling in it’s depictions of the two young men, struggling to grow into their identities and sexuality.  With teacher passion, front loading, engaging literacy activities and discussion it can work fine.

Instructional Possibilities
There are many instructional possibilities with this story. The novel is wonderful for studies of setting, and characterization. Dante and Ari present many possibilities for comparison and contrast both subtle and obvious. The minor characters  are also interesting, layered and add to the complexities of the story and it’s themes, including Ari’s parents  who each have had their challenges with types of mental illness.  For Ari’s dad, the trauma of  the Vietnam war haunt him years after he has returned home. For his mother, a nervous breakdown in her past remains a quiet tension in the home. In addition, studies of the Vietnam War, the Italian poet Dante and Greek philosopher Aristotle would be appropriate.

Cultural Authenticity

The novel dips  below the surface on the Iceberg of Culture on several issues.  In dealing with the homosexuality of both Dante and Ari, Saenz does so while simultaneously dealing with  the nature of friendships, adolescence and manhood. Saenz deals with subject of homosexuality subtly, which works in this novel. It flows into the story as one part of the multi layered coming of age that these young men are grappling with. As a heterosexual, I can’t speak to the authenticity of this representation, but as a black woman, I can speak to the reality that daily living within marginalized culture  is not singularly focused on one aspect of identity. The story of Ari and Dante’s emergent love for one another seems to unfold honestly.  Their coming of age is seen through multiple rings of culture, age, gender, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation. It seems that even before grappling with their homosexuality, both young men are working through their understanding of what it means to Mexican/Mexican American. Saenz presents us with snapshots of diversity within ethnicity, that of course is also reality.  He does this honestly and it reminds us that left to the devices of the media, and/or our biases, ethnicity can  become monolithic and stereotyped.

We really try not to do  “Heritage Months”  at Responsive Reads, because the GOAL is  to be “responsive”, EVERYDAY, buuutttt…June is LGBTQ month and this is a GREAT Responsive Read, so GO GET IT!! Go get it right now!

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