What a year Benjamin Alire Sáenz has had: in the adult market, he made literary history last May as the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his seven-story collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club; his latest young adult title had equally spectacular success, winning the Stonewall Book Award’s “Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award,” the Pura Belpré Award, and named an Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book.
While I sheepishly confess I haven’t read Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (for shame!), I can wholeheartedly agree with every judge who deemed Aristotle and Dante so prizeworthy across various audiences. If you have the choice to go audible, take it: Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the composer-lyricist of Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer finalist, In the Heights) superbly captures the voice-breaking self-discovery of adolescent angst.
At 15, Aristotle, or “Ari,” is the much-younger youngest child of four, and the only still living at home with his fragile mother and distant father. His two older sisters have their own lives, and his older brother has been lost to the family since he went to jail. He’s the embodiment of the ‘angry young man’ – ”bored,” “miserable,” and unwilling to accept how much he still needs others, including his parents. When Ari meets Dante – a “squeaky”-voiced fellow 15-year-old who offers to teach him how to swim – their tentative relationship grows to encompass not only each other, but their families, as well. From unsure companions to best friends, through misunderstandings and separations, these not-yet-mature teens learn to share their lives with honesty, warmth, and ultimately love.
“I had second thoughts about writing this book,” Sáenz admits in his opening “Acknowledgements.” “In fact, after I finished the first chapter or so, I had almost decided to abandon the project.” How grateful are we that he persevered to create such a thoughtful, compassionate, authentic story. Through Aristotle and Dante’s revealing journey, Sáenz gives readers the opportunity to discover and explore their own secrets, and secure their personal place in the vast universe.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult