book review: Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self." ~Aristotle
"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self." ~Aristotle

title: Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe

author: Benjamin Alire Saenz

date: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers; Feb, 2012

main character: Angel Aristotle Mendoza

RL: 3.9

Aristotle and Dante Discover the secrets of the universe is a philosophical tale of two boys coming of age. Ari and Dante meet one summer at a local swimming pool and while they quickly and easily become friends, they both also are caught up on their perceived aloneness. Both boys have been given a strong moral foundation by their families, delivering the groundwork of rules and order that Aristotle (the philosopher) believed were necessary for humans to attain reason.

Ari has no friends and is often unwilling or unable to talk about things that really are important to him. While it’s easy to explain his lack of articulation through his father, it would be more accurate to simply realize that this 15 year is still a boy who is lacking the ability to reason out and explain why he does what he does. It’s his mother, a teacher, who pulls him out. Watching his transition to adulthood is not easy as we’re taken through what feels like hell to him.

Dante, who also has no friends, wants to connect to his Mexican heritage. He actually admits to liking his parents, a true rarity in YA fiction. He is fascinated with birds and hates shoes. Such keen imagery is  straight from Purgatorio, as is the importance of art as a reproduction of nature; water and rain; Dante’s laughter; Ari’s fever and more.

A crucial scene in the story is when Ari’s legs are broken in a tragic car accident. There’s a discussion in the hospital with a doctor that relates to readers the Aristotelian concept that no part can ever be well unless the whole is well. As the bones begin healing, we see relationships begin the slow process of healing as well.

One small, small thing I couldn’t understand in the story is why Dante’s family, when returning from Chicago to El Paso decided to drive through Washington D.C. Do the geography: it doesn’t quite make sense.

And the universe? Together and alone, the boys explore and discover mind altering substances, girls, artists, poets, work, pain and friendship.  Aristotle, in his scientifically ordered mind described three types of friendship. I think when Ari and Dante developed their friendship, they realized a fourth level that even these two great philosophers missed.

Saenz builds his story around ancient philosophers without weighing it down. Rather, he craftily builds layer upon layer of meaning to the story. Our characters, Dante and Ari, read like two 15-year-old boys who are at the end of the purest of times for boys: they can like their parents, verbally express whatever comes to their mind, touch and even wonder. They meet at a swimming pool and take the plunge into growing up.

To course across more kindly waters now
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that of the second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.


There is no better pairing for this book that Dante’s Inferno. eHow offers several ways to ‘get through’ Inferno including a photo essay, movie, audio lecture which analyzes the poem and even an online reading of the poem itself. If you really want to excite students (or yourself!) about the works of Dante Alighieri, then play Dante’s Inferno the video game.

Benjamin Alire Saenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty-two miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. He was the fourth of seven children and was brought up in a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family. Saenz  is an award winning poet, writer, professor and painter. His previous young adult works include Sammy and Juliano in Hollywood ( ALA 2009  Outstanding Book for College Bound Students); Last night I sang to the monster and He forgot to say good-bye.

5 thoughts on “book review: Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe

  1. I’ve read two of the author’s works, and he’s such a beautiful writer I’ve made a goal to read as many of his books as possible. I’m excited for this one.


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