It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means free time and family – and though you may have a great time during the holidays, it can often get pretty stressful. Why not grab a book for when you need a little down time – especially a warm, wonderful book like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
Summer 1987. Aristotle Mendoza is bored and friendless. He lives with his mother and father, and though they are incredibly loving to him, they don’t talk about the hard things – his father’s experiences in Vietnam during the war, or the fact that Ari’s older brother is in prison. Ari spends most of his time at the town pool, even though he can’t swim, and it’s there that he befriends Dante, another Mexican-American boy who’s in just as much need of a friend as Ari is. As the weeks go on, Ari and Dante become inseparable, true kindred souls. Over the course of the next year, they must weather the many hardships put in their paths – distance, familial conflict, and, most importantly, self-discovery. Only through relying on each other and the strength of their relationship will Ari and Dante come through the other side better than before.
Aristotle and Dante has been one of my favourite books for years. I first read it back in 2013; I don’t think I was entirely sure of what to expect, but I knew that it sounded interesting and had won awards. (A lot of awards – the Printz Honor Award, the Stonewall Book Award, and the Lambda Literary award, just to name a few.) Sometimes when YA books win a lot of awards they end up being pretentious or high-brow, but Aristotle and Dante remains approachable and relatable throughout. Narrated by Ari, the novel is in many ways a coming of age novel; but in most other ways, it’s a story about relationships, with friendships, family, and romance all playing important parts throughout the book. Aristotle and Dante gives the reader a glimpse into Ari’s life during the hardest times he’s yet had to deal with, and we get to see him grow and become stronger throughout.
Those aren’t the only reasons this novel is so amazing though. Unlike many other YA novels, this one paints a detailed portrait of a teen’s position in and relationship with his family, with Sáenz creating complex adult characters right alongside his equally complex teen characters. Also, the book features primarily – if not completely – minority characters, especially Mexican-American and queer characters. This is not only refreshing on a larger scale – since there are overwhelmingly few YA novels featuring main Latinx characters – but it is especially wonderful to find Latinx characters in a YA historical novel too.
For years Aristotle and Dante has been the book I turn to for comfort in the hardest of times. Ari and Dante’s story has stuck with me every time I re-read it, and I hope that Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s words will affect you just as deeply as they’ve affected me. I can’t wait to meet him this year at TBF!