Saturday, September 17, 2016

My YA Milestone Read: Intersectionality, Marginalia, and the Secrets of the Universe

In INFO 268 History of Youth Literature, our unit on the history of teen lit required us to read a milestone YA book and I chose to read a Michael L. Print honor book: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

On Monday morning of this week, I checked out a copy of the book from the high school library where I work, and I immediately fell in love. I woke up earlier than normal the next day so that I could read it before work, and I managed to get to the satisfying ending by the same evening.

From start to finish, Aristotle and Dante is a beautifully poetic read that traces the friendship and love experienced by two high school teenagers named Aristotle "Ari" and Dante. Narrated through Ari's first-person perspective, Sáenz masterfully explores layered issues related to identity, family relationships, trauma, sexuality, and healing.

Regarding identity, I appreciated that the characters articulate and inhabit intersectionality. Ari and Dante are both Mexican American, and as we come to learn, they are both boys who fall in love with one another. The thing is, they are not just simply "Mexican," but express uncertainty about being considered or feeling Mexican enough. In a similar way, the words "homosexual" and "gay" are never used in the book. The expression of their love defies labels. They defy labels.

What makes this book so universally relatable - and "normal" - is the idea that there are "secrets of the universe." Ari considers himself weird and thinks that others must have life figured out more than him since he feels so lost. He struggles with being vulnerable with others and even with himself. He comes to see his parents as flawed, but comfortingly human. He feels alone, and yet learns to let others into his life. These are such typical struggles that any teen - or adult - goes through.

As the physical book that I read was from my library, a bonus treat that I discovered was artwork that a student had added to the pages, expressing their reaction at two points in the book. See below.

While drawing in library books is generally frowned upon, it was fun to see evidence of a student’s reading of and engagement with the copy. This is the second book I’ve come across in my collection with art from the same student. The first time was when I read I am J back in November 2015.

I never did speak to the student about the art (it seemed like too private a thing to comment about), but I know who it was and they have since graduated. I have left their marks in these books, because I regard it as a touching imprint that captures the student’s reading experience like a time capsule. It provides a special glimpse into their thoughts and feelings, and to me, this tangible evidence illustrates the power that stories can play in the emotional lives of students.

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