This year, for the first time, the school district where I work included the winners of the Stonewall book award in its announcement of the American Library Association Awards, which includes the Caldecott and Newbery Awards for children's literature. The Stonewall award is given to those high-quality books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes that are aimed at younger readers. This was a huge symbolic milestone for me. I was, to my knowledge, the first openly gay teacher in my school district when I came out 13 years ago, and the acknowledgement of books for children and young adults with LGBT themes felt like official acceptance. I'd read from this genre pretty extensively for a diversity project during my master's degree in reading, but since then I have not always kept up with new books with LGBT themes.
Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was a Stonewall winner for 2013, and within a month of the announcement I had seen it referenced, or had it recommended to me, at least a dozen times. And it deserves the praise! It tells the story of 15 year old Ari, a loner living in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, and Dante, the quirky, outgoing young man who becomes his first true friend. Both Ari and Dante are dealing with the usual host of adolescent issues-redefining your relationships with your parents and family, navigating the treacherous waters of the high-school social strata, transitioning to adulthood, and, of course, dating and first loves. With Dante, Ari finds an unexpected friend; effusive where he is reticent, affectionate where he is reserved, outgoing where he is taciturn. For some reason, this friendship works for both of them, and the boys share many secrets with each other over the course of their friendship. Ari finally has someone to talk to about the brother in prison that his parents won't even acknowledge exists, and Dante finally has someone to whom he can admit that he would rather kiss boys than girls. Ari's feelings about Dante are confusing and unsettling, and their friendship is not always smooth sailing, but in the end both boys find comfort, a deep kindness, and love.
One of the wonderful things about this book is that while it has strong LGBT themes, it is not just a "gay" story. Like any "real" person, Ari and Dante are both more than just their sexual orientation, and Saenz does an excellent job of showing the intersection of things family connections, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation in creating identity. To be honest, while I was certainly drawn into the story of Ari and Dante's friendship, the part of the story that was the most touching to me was Ari's relationship with his father, a Viet Nam veteran who never left the war behind. Their interactions, and Ari's longing for meaningful interactions with his distant father, are a large part of the emotional engine that drove this story. Saenz also takes on the issue of gay bashing, which despite the improvement of the general climate for LGBT people in our country is still too often occurring. The fact that the novel is set in the late 80s, when I myself was about the age of Ari and Dante, gave it a certain resonance for me that a young adult reader wouldn't have, but Saenz did a good job creating an authentic setting that any reader should be able to appreciate.
Book Riot’s Deals of the Day for February 27th, 2017
12 hours ago