I’m slowly working my way through the recent ALA Youth Media Award winners. I’m moderately embarrassed at how many winners had completely escaped my notice. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) received both a Prinz honor and the Stonewall prize so it immediately went to the top of my list of must reads. Of course, as any bookseller knows, it becomes difficult to get your hands on winning books (unless you already have them in stock) after the award show since all the *other* booksellers are all scrambling to get the books in their store. Insider info: booksellers totally watch the awards with the order window open so that they can put in requests as the winners are announced. Seriously. One minute late and you don’t get any of the books : ) Anyway, I put in a request for Aristotle and Dante with our store owner and waited for the book to arrive. This past weekend I was pulling books for our annual sale, and the book was on our sale list! What!?!?! Not only had the book arrived and I hadn’t noticed, but it accidentally made it on the sale list! My special order! I was shocked. SHOCKED. And thrilled because now I could finally read the book. All’s well, so they say.
As for the book. YES! yes, yes, yes. So good. Narrated by Aristotle, the story chronicles the friendship of two boys who meet at the pool in El Paso during the summer of 1987. Aristotle, who can’t swim, is floating around thinking about how most high-school guys are tools. My word, not his; it is 1987. Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Naturally, if your name is Aristotle and you meet a kid whose name is Dante, you are going to have to be friends with him. Fortunately, Dante isn’t a tool. He’s smart, well-read, funny, thoughtful, artistic. I want to be friends with him myself. Aristotle and Dante debate what it means to be a real Mexican. Dante teaches Aristotle about literature. Aristotle saves Dante’s life. Dante’s family moves away for a year.
Aristotle struggles with the silence surrounding his brother’s absence, that his parents refuse to discuss. He struggles with understanding his father, back from Vietnam, who can’t seem to talk about anything. He struggles with his own nightmares. He has a great relationship with his mother, which is one of the things I really loved about this book. Parents in YA novels are often absent or horrible, and that sort of makes sense from a teen’s perspective. But in this book, both Dante’s and Aristotle’s parents are lovely. Not perfect. Not idealized. But lovely, supportive, and smart. Smart enough to know their sons even better than their sons do. I respected both sets of parents in this story and appreciated that Sáenz gave all four of their characters so much depth without distracting from the two boys.
Although Dante is more confident and outgoing than Aristotle, he has his own struggles, namely his feelings for Aristotle. I’m a fan of narratives that rotate between different characters and in some ways I would have loved this story to move between Dante and Aristotle so I could have heard more of Dante’s thoughts. But of the two, it’s Aristotle who struggles with expressing himself. We need him to narrate because otherwise he’d be as much of a mystery to us as he is to Dante. Besides, he has a biting outlook on life that I really liked: “Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out of me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?” He has a soft side though: “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand”. I bet you could, too, especially when your best friend is Dante.