Benjamin Alire Sáenz is going to be very busy over the next few days. The American Library Association Annual Conference is taking place this week in Chicago. On Sunday June 30, his novel ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE will receive the Pura Belpre Author Award. On Monday, July 1 it will receive the Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, selected by the Stonewall Book Award Committee, and that night it will receive a Michael L. Printz Honor. Last month it received the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult books. It was also named a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten, a Rainbow List Top Ten, a Bank Street Best Books of the Year, a Kirkus Best Young Adult Book and a School Library Journal Best Books of the Year.
That is a remarkable collection of accolades for a deliciously layered, beautifully written book. One with threads of story expertly interwoven to create an extraordinary whole. It is a book that speaks to so many different people in so many different ways.
Sometimes we are quick to categorize and label books as gay books, or Latino books, or books about friendship, or romance, or loss, or socioeconomic class. Aristotle and Dante is a book that crosses lines and categories and cannot easily be reduced to “just” anything. The beauty and cadence of its language challenges readers to slow down and consider the how and the why, as much as the what of the plot.
“I came to understand that my father was a careful man. To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.” — Benjamin Alire Sáenz, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE
And the voice of its main character Aristotle, Ari for short, is honest and compelling, and at times heartbreakingly vulnerable.
“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.” — Benjamin Alire Sáenz, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE
It is also a story about cultural identity, friendship, family, loss, and love. And yes, a book about a young man discovering himself, and that he is worthy of love, and can love another without the sky falling in.
“I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.” — Benjamin Alire Sáenz, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE
I love that so many people have essentially claimed Aristotle and Dante as their own, as the best of their own. All those awards and lists and accolades speak to the fact that many readers, with different experiences and different criteria and different lenses through which to view the text, found truth and beauty and excellence in its pages.
And yet, at its central plot, Aristotle and Dante is a coming out story, even a coming out to one’s self story.
“I had learned to hide what I felt. No, that’s not true. There was no learning involved. I had been born knowing how to hide what I felt.” — Benjamin Alire Sáenz, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE
We hear a lot about the fact that some think there are enough coming out stories. I’ve blogged before about my disagreement, but I’ll go a step further. It’s hubris, and speaking from a place of privilege. Just because some well read folks think there are “enough” ignores the fact that for some kids out there, they haven’t found one yet. And as I said in response to Tom Ryan’s lovely guest post from last week, there are kids out there who haven’t found their book yet, the one that will change their life.
ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE is a beautiful book, an important book, and, obviously, a book that struck true with many different groups of readers.
As it is being celebrated this weekend, I will raise a glass and cheer it on. Who knows, for some kid out there right now, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE might be his book, the book that changes his life.
E. M. Kokie’s debut novel PERSONAL EFFECTS (Candlewick Press, 2012) was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, a SCBWI Crystal Kite Finalist, a 2013 IRA Young Adult Honor Book, and it was named to ALA’s Rainbow list, YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, CCBC Choices, and the 2013 Bank Street College Best Books of the Year list (outstanding merit). As a lawyer, she loves a good story and a good debate. She likes to have the last word. She lives in Wisconsin with her partner. Emily can be found online at www.emkokie.com, https://twitter.com/EMKokie,http://www.tumblr.com/blog/