April 02, 2013

BOOKS: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)

Each year, the American Library Association awards several awards for excellence in literature for children and young adults; the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are the oldest, and thus the best known, of the group, but the newer awards are beginning to gain their own prestige. And one of the big winners this year was this novel by Sáenz -- one of several runners-up for the Printz Award for excellence in YA literature, winner of the Pura Belpre Award for literature celebrating the Latino cultural experience, and winner of the Stonewall Award for literature relating to the LGBT experience. The book more than lives up to that level of honor and praise.

The setting is El Paso in the late 1980s, and Ari and Dante are 15 when they meet at the local public swimming pool. There's not a huge amount of plot; the novel is simply the story of their developing relationship. It's very nicely written, and Sáenz has an interesting way of developing characters and relationships through absence or separation -- Dante's family moves out of town for several months; Ari's father is an emotionally withdrawn Vietnam veteran; Ari's older brother is in prison, and though he's never actually present in the book, his absence is an enormous factor in the family dynamic.

There's a growing body of coming-of-age literature for and about gay kids; most of it is still about white kids, which makes this book a much-needed addition. The boys' ethnic and cultural identity as Mexican-American isn't the primary thrust of the story, or of who they are as people, but it's more than insignificant background, and it helps make the characters feel like more specific individuals than we often get in this sort of book.

If anything felt off, it was that Ari seems to be a very late sexual bloomer. I can understand being repressed enough for various reasons that you don't recognize or identify yourself as gay, but this kid barely seems aware of himself as having any sexual feelings at all.

That's a small quibble, though, and more than outweighed by the strengths of the book, which is fine stuff indeed.

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