Friday, May 2, 2014

Reading: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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"Sometimes, I think I am the saddest boy in the world." 

These words are shared by Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza in the novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a recent Stonewall and Printz Award winner written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a cultural insider to the Hispanic characters.  Except for books in which dogs die, this one was the first that made tears stream down my face with that line alone.  

Growing up in the desert of El Paso, a city that is cherished in my heart, sixteen year old Aristotle just wants to be alone.  His mother, a teacher, always "hovers," and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, never wants to talk.  His older sisters are too grown up for him, and his older brother, Bernardo, is a mystery.  The only thing that Ari knows about his brother is that he is in prison but for what reasons, Ari doesn't know.

The absence of his brother is haunting to him, along with several other insecurities that Ari has.  Uncomfortable dreams.  Annoying boys.  Pestering girls.  And then one day, he meets Dante at the pool who offers to teach Ari how to swim.  The two boys instantly connect and become best friends.  Their friendship is so deep that when Ari sees a car slide around the corner after a slick rain and nearly run over Dante, he rushes to the middle of the road to push his friend out of the way, nearly paralyzing himself in the rescue.  

Throughout the novel, this event torments Ari.  He doesn't want to talk about it, and he doesn't consider himself a hero.  When Dante moves away for eight months with his parents to Chicago, he regularly writes to Ari, who irregularly responds.  As their friendship unfolds, Ari begins to questions his thoughts about Dante, his loyalty to his family, and his own normalcy.  He makes reckless decisions to help him cope with his insecurities - driving out in the middle of the desert and drinking beer, for example - and becomes acquainted with his parents in ways that he never know.  When Dante admits that he wants to grow up and marry a boy, Ari is certain that he will always be friends with Dante, even if he doesn't really want Dante to talk about these things with him. 

In a time when the Gay Rights Movement is making strides like the Civil Rights Movement did in the 1960's - and still does today - Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a comfort to young adults who might be coping with their own insecurities.  It also helps cultural outsiders to be empathetic to the feelings that people who are gay experience.  The development of the characters is rich, making me fall in love with Aristotle and Dante.  There are many times in the novel when Ari's family and friends tell him to "love himself the way that others do" and to stop being so hard on himself.  I felt this way towards Ari, too, as I got to read about what a selfless, unique person he was.  Reading about Ari's internal battles hurt my heart, and I found myself rooting for him and praying that the author would please do him justice at the end of the book; I just couldn't stand it if he was sad for one more day!    

The author writes in his dedication, "To all the boys who've had to play by different rules."  Throughout the novel, Ari sets rules for himself to try to conform to societal standards, but these rules just aren't going to help him win.  Mr. Sáeiz has written an influential, insightful novel with compelling characters that tells a coming-of-age story for all readers.  He includes beautiful phrases (like when Ari talks about how he wants to kiss the raindrops, for example), and the lexile makes this lengthy book accessible for struggling readers, as it is readably appropriate for third graders.  (The content, of course, is for older readers.)  To check it out for yourself, visit your local library.  

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