Grade Level: 9th-12th
The story is about a boy named Aristotle, who feels like he does not belong anywhere. He has no friends, his brother is in prison,his father does not talk much, and his mother keeps secrets. Then, one day at a swimming pool he meets Dante, a person who he finally feels comfortable with. They hang out all summer and Aristotle even saves Dante’s life. At the time, Aristotle is confused as to why he jumped in front of the truck and pushed Dante out of the way but, he does not realize he already loves Dante. Then, Dante moves away for a year and they exchange letters, however, Aristotle doesn’t write back much. Throughout the story, Aristotle is learning who he is, he asks about his dad’s past war experiences, learns about his brother in prison, and lets Dante become closer to him.
- Don’t be afraid to let people in your life
- Don’t be ashamed of who you are
- You learn about life by facing it and questioning it
Benjamin Alire Saenz, has created a book that tackles the subject of identity through the characters Dante and Aristotle.Dante is not afraid to discuss uncomfortable subjects and he helps Aristotle to learn to do the same, by aiding him in releasing his troublesome thoughts. In today’s society, we keep all of our problems bottled up and pretend our lives are great. However, the issue with that is, when a person holds in all their emotions of pain, stress, and worry, it keeps them from living a happy life. We as human beings have the gift of language and should not be afraid to let others help.
Possible Student Reaction:
After reading this book, I believe a student will feel hopeful and relieved that they are not alone dealing with the question of who am I? Teenagers are scared of being the one who doesn’t fit in or is different. However,every teen who reads this book can take the lesson to never be afraid to be yourself.
Between Violence and Tenderness: Aristotle and Dante Author Sáenz Talks to SLJ
Monday was a very good day for Benjamin Alire Sáenz. His sensitive young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (S & S, 2012), was named for three of the American Library Association’s coveted Youth Media Awards, distinctions that left him both stunned and grateful, he tells School Library Journal.
Future editions of Aristotle and Dante will display merit seals for the Pura Belpré Author Award for excellence in depicting and celebrating the Latino cultural experience, the Stonewall Book Award for literary excellence in depicting the LGBT experience, and a Michael L. Printz Honor for the best writing in teen literature. Likely, the novel’s cover will have to be slightly redesigned to incorporate these various honors, “a great problem to have” for an author, Sáenz jokes.
SLJ caught up with Sáenz in between his meetings as chair of the MFA bilingual creative writing department at the University of Texas at El Paso for a revealing chat about his reaction to the YMA wins, his personal inspirations for Aristotle and Dante, his writing process, and his next YA project.
How do you feel about being selected by three very different YMA committees?
It was like a mirror of me! It made me very happy in a profound way. It was all the communities that I claim: the gay community, the Latino community, and the mainstream community. I’m part of the mainstream. I was educated and integrated into America by going to school, and when I went to college in the 1970s there were no Mexican-Americans. But I didn’t feel left out; my friends loved me. I was integrated. So even though I’ve always claimed the Mexican/Chicano community, and I’ve been aware of racism, I have not lived a segregated life.
What inspired you to write Aristotle and Dante?
I was married for 15 years, but I really had to come to terms with my own sexuality at the age of 54. One of the things I had to come to terms with is that I was sexually abused as a boy. It’s not that I didn’t remember; it’s that I didn’t want to think about it. The thought of being with a man was unappealing, so it took me a lot of therapy and time to come to terms with my life, and me.
So I thought I wanted to write a gay-themed book, I thought that I wanted to write a book about a young boy who really didn’t know that he was gay. I mean Ari really doesn’t know it. That’s the theme—what does he know? So I created this situation, and I thought about what names I would give them, and I love the name Dante and I teach the Inferno a lot. And “Ari” is not uncommon among Latinos, or at least Mexican Nationals. So I just started to write this story and I wanted it to be set not in the present time, because I think it’s easier now for boys to admit they’re gay. In the 1980s I don’t think it was so easy, and I didn’t want to have all this texting stuff in the book.
And the first thing I wanted to write about was the relationship between Ari and his mother.
How have your experiences shaped the story?
I wanted to represent two very different Mexican-American families. These are families that I knew—there are working class families like Ari’s, and professional Mexican-American families and it’s not a phenomenon. There are professional families and they’re never portrayed; there’s lots of anti-Mexican rhetoric that says we’re all illegals, all recent immigrants. None of this is true. I just wanted to portray a normal Mexican-American family—and they’re very American. I wanted that contrast because I wanted my audience to know that there is a wide variety of Mexican-American experience in this country. But I also wanted to make it feel real. They are real people. I really fell in love with both the mothers. I always fall in love with my characters, but I know women like this. They love their sons and just because they aren’t always wise in the way they love you doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Ari’s mother is very loving but also very controlling—in a loving way, but controlling nonetheless.
Was it a conscious choice to include so many caring adults in the story?
I think that young men need father figures; one way or another they’re going to find them or get them, and (hopefully not) suffer for it. I’ve mentored a lot of young men that have had terrible relationships with their fathers and I’ve been a stand-in, albeit an academic one. But it’s been a privilege for me to be in their lives and I think that impacts my writing.
Maybe too much young adult fiction is about teens that are in a world apart from adults and that’s just not true for a lot of teens. And Mexican-American teens have good parents—it’s just not true that you are ostracized if you are gay. It’s true in a lot of Latino-American families but it’s also not true in a lot of Latino-American families. My novels are so hard, all of them. I wanted to write something tender. I thought, “I don’t want to write something hard.” Part of it is that I’m such a sentimental man and you wouldn’t know it from my work. And I’m afraid of being sentimental and I was afraid of making this into a sentimental novel, but I thought I could do it. I could make it feel real and make the characters feel real. That was the hard part for me. I like to think I pulled it off.