Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has quickly woven itself within the tapestry of beloved young adult literature. Aristotle and Dante tells the story of the two eponymous Mexican American boys who develop a friendship during the summer of 1987 that goes on to change the course of their adolescence. Aristotle (Ari), who narrates the book through first person perspective, is a conflicted character who struggles with being much younger than his older siblings, effectively rendering him an only child. The crux of this struggle is his and his parents’ estranged relationship with his brother, Bernardo, who has been in prison since Ari was four under circumstances that remain withheld from Ari throughout most of the narrative. Ari deeply yearns for a relationship with his older brother, especially since he has trouble connecting with his own peers in El Paso, Texas.

In steps Dante, who, like Ari, positions himself as a social outcast. Their friendship blossoms effortlessly during a summer that is cut short due to an accident that leaves Ari confined to his house. After Dante confesses romantic feelings for Ari, their relationship is thrown for a curveball that is further complicated by Dante’s family move to Chicago for the school year. As Ari and Dante both grow into young men during their year apart, Ari finds their identities begin to diverge; he is concerned with following what he understands as a normal adolescence, which includes focusing on his masculinity and presumed attraction to girls, while Dante struggles with his Mexican American identity – he feels as if he is somehow less Mexican because of his lighter skin and carries some internalized discrimination due to this – and his burgeoning queer sexuality. When Dante returns to El Paso the following summer, the two boys are thrust back into a friendship that is simultaneously familiar and foreign, and Ari is forced to make a decision about what their relationship will look like moving forward.

This book is written in beautiful prose that is oftentimes quite poetic, making it an outstanding read for its aesthetic qualities. Sáenz’s style and artful use of language gives the work an occasional level of abstraction that makes it a complex and satisfying text for adolescents. His use of symbolism within the novel is frequent and intentional, illuminating elements of Ari’s identity and his relationship with Dante that he is not always aware of, serving to draw the reader closer into the text. The relationships in the text add to its complexity and suitability for adolescent readers and high school classrooms. The shifting relationship between Ari and Dante is particularly notable as they navigate the boundaries of friendship and romantic love, but equally interesting is Ari’s evolving relationship with his overbearing yet loving mother and reserved, war-traumatized father. There is great potential for adolescents to see their relationships with their own parents reflected in Ari’s relationship with his mom and dad, particularly as the relationship is not static but constantly shifting throughout the novel as Ari gets older and gains more agency apart from his parents. The purpose of the text adds yet another dimension of complexity as the text is less plot-driven than most young adult novels and more focused on the consciousness and development of Ari over a specific period of time. Sáenz is less concerned with the events that take place and more interested in Ari’s reaction and internalization of those events, formatting the text more toward abstraction than is typically done in young adult literature.

By: Josh Quinones

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7What happens to us when the love of our life dies unexpectedly? How do we process our grief knowing that we will never be able to speak to them directly or hear them respond? And, what happens if this love was dating someone else when they died?

These are the provocative central questions at the heart of Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me. Written from the perspective of seventeen year-old high school senior, Griffin, the novel oscillates back and forth between the present in the aftermath of the passing of Griffin’s first love and the past history of their relationship, from their first date through the accident that separated them forever. Griffin, an introverted teenager who struggles to manage his overwhelming obsessive compulsive disorder, is enthralled by the charismatic and outgoing Theo, and when the two of them decide to take the next step from being friends to boyfriends, they find a love within each other that is kind, supportive, and everlasting. That is, until Theo moves away from their home in New York to California to start college and begins dating Jackson, thrusting Griffin into the role of supportive best friend – a role he had agreed to play, yet struggles with as he envisions his path and Theo’s eventually realigning. When Theo drowns while at the beach, Griffin and Jackson’s lives are thrust together back in New York in the wake of his funeral. Can two people who loved the same boy be friends as they navigate their shared grief, or will their separate and competing histories tear them apart? Griffin, who speaks directly to Theo during the moments of the novel that are set in the present, grapples with his unwanted relationship with Jackson, but learns that there may be some benefit in spending time with the only other person who understands what he is going through.

For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is a challenging, gut-wrenching, cathartic, beautiful tale of how viscerally powerful grief is. There are moments in the text where Griffin’s loss is so real that it is hard to continue reading, and in that way Silvera has brilliantly realized the theme of grief through his writing. As a young person navigating the murky waters of belonging, mental illness, and loss, Griffin is a well-rendered character through whom many adolescent readers, male and female, queer and straight, can see parts of their selves and their struggles reflected through. For those who feel alone and who feel like they have nothing left, Silvera reminds us that even in the wake of sadness and isolation, the essential tools to rebuild our lives, though they may not change our circumstances, lie within us. When everything in our lives seems uncertain, we are reminded, as Griffin learns, that we are our own “compass arrow[s], trying to find [our] true north, (233).

By: Josh Quinones

Silvera, Adam. History Is All You Left Me. Soho Teen, 2017.

Desert Boys by Chris McCormick

Desert Boys ImageMany people know what it is like to spend your childhood and adolescence growing up in a city, the suburbs, or the rural country, but few people can say that they grew up in the desert. For Daley Kushner, the desert town of California’s Antelope Valley – which, he notes, hasn’t seen a real live antelope in over a hundred years – was, and in many ways still is, his home. Daley, who is known by his two best friends, Robert Karinger and Dan Watts as simply “Kush”, struggles through an awkward adolescence as he comes to terms with the intersectionality of his ethic and religious backgrounds – his mother is an Armenian orthodox Christian – and his sexual orientation – identifying himself as both gay and queer – and what that means for his life living in a small, predominantly white, conservative community. Alongside Karinger and Watts, Kush learns what it means to live both inside and outside of a community that rejects outsiders and is constantly challenging his own understanding of home and what that means to him. Eventually, Kush leaves the Antelope Valley for San Francisco, where he attends college and enjoys a life that brings him both career and romantic fulfillment and freedom, but life circumstances, including his mother’s illness and passing of a friend, continually bring him back to the Antelope Valley. Kush is ultimately confronted with the question of what constitutes a home and whether or not you can ever truly leave a place, or people, in your past.

Chris McCormick’s beautiful yet simple prose is captivating over the course of the short vignettes that compose his debut novel, Desert Boys. His treatment of central themes of racism and sexuality is subtly woven within the text, occasionally bursting through in moments of tension; these themes are highlighted in particular by the bond Kush and Watts share by being young men of color in a predominantly white town and Kush’s confusing relationship with Karinger, which comes to a head when Karinger confronts Kush about being queer and how that fits in with the hyper-masculine homophobic context of Antelope Valley. This book would particularly resonate with students who live in small towns or who feel particularly restrained by their geographic reality. McCormick posits both positives and negatives for choosing to leave or settle within the limits of your home town, but ultimately leaves the decision up to the reader to choose for themselves. Ultimately, Desert Boys is a great reminder to all that while the places we are from do not define or confine us, we carry those places and those people with us whether or not we choose to physically leave them behind. McCormick asks a lot of pertinent questions about identity formation and how that is related to our respective contexts and surrounding influences that would resonate with high school students.

Written by Josh Quinones

MLA citation: McCormick, Chris. Desert boys. New York: Picador, 2016. Print.