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

Monday, February 15, 2021

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

Published by Simon & Schuster, April 1, 2014

Genre: YA Literature

Format: I audiobooked this one via library Sora account --> Read by Lin Manuel Miranda.

This book wasn't in my official queue, but I stumbled on it browsing the digital shelves and decided I could fit it into my drive time at the end of last week, and I'm glad I did. 

I will never know what it was like to live as a 15-year old boy of Mexican heritage in El Paso, Texas in the 1980s, but Aristotle and Dante have given me an idea. 

The narrator is Ari, short for Angel Aristotle Mendoza. He's lonely at the beginning of the book, describing himself as a psuedo-only child whose brother and twin sisters are more than a decade older. When Ari meets Dante at the pool, Dante volunteers to teach Ari to swim, and they laugh over the ridiculousness of their names, bonding over books, art, life talks, and actually liking their parents. As boys who both feel on the outskirts of social groups in high school, they become fast friends, weather near tragedy and distance together, and emerge on the other side closer than ever.

Part of Ari's path growing up is searching for a male role model. He tries to connect with his dad, but his dad, as a Vietnam vet, focuses much of his attention on his own inner turmoil. Ari tries connecting with his older brother, but his parents are slow to share any information about the older brother, who is in prison. When Ari meets Dante and Dante's parents, he engages in a community that is much like his family, but different enough to offer support in a fresh way.

Dante is quirky and strange, but refreshing in his honesty and openness. He struggles with his own questions as he walks through the hardest teen years and ultimately finds some answers.

As a teacher, I found myself rooting so much for Ari while reading this book. He's a great kid who has so much to juggle in the process of growing up that he doesn't realize he's a great kid. Reading this book reminded me of the moment you realize your parents are "just human" and have struggles of their own. It made me think about the power of shame, loneliness, and what's unspoken in sabotaging relationships and likewise the power of acceptance in building community and love.

The main characters begin this story at 15, and Ari is frank and honest about the things 15-year old boys think about. The age recommendation on this book is 12 and up, but I think 14 and up might be in a better position to get more out of the book. 

It is on Amazon's teacher recommendation list. It might work best in literature circles, though you might analyze how the author uses animals (bird, dog) or setting to support key themes.


"The problem with my life is that it was someone else's idea." 

"Sometimes, I think my father has all these scars on his heart, in his head, all over. It's not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who has been to war . . . I don't think the war will ever be over for him." 


This is one I would almost read again on a rainy day. The conflicts are more complex than most teen reads, the characters are rich, flawed, and interesting. It's precious to find a friend that knows you well--both because you've logged years together, but also because there's something innately familiar about the other person. This book reminded me of the beauty of those friendships. 

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