Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

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Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

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