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

12000020By Eileen Fontenot

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

MY TWO CENTS: This book is a four-time award winner–and well deserved! What a moving book. Even days after I finished it, I would still think of Ari and Dante and their friendship, which grows into deeper feelings–how much they influenced each other’s lives over the course of a year, with events tenderly captured by Sáenz. The romantic type of love is not the only one Sáenz touches upon; familial love is also an important topic in the book. Both Dante’s and Ari’s relationships with their families are as complicated as their relationship with each other.

The story is set in 1987 and told from the point of view of Ari–despite this, the reader gains a full picture of Dante. We learn of Dante’s sweet quirks (like his distaste of wearing shoes) and his passion for literature and art. When Dante and Ari meet, Ari is cut off from others. His parents won’t talk about the details of his older brother’s incarceration, and his father is still fighting his demons stemming from his time fighting in Vietnam. He has no real friends. Dante’s openness and delight in the simple pleasures in life helps Ari break out of his self-enforced wall, ostensibly to hide his confusing emotions.

Sáenz packs in so much emotion in such simple and spare dialogue that conveys so much. There are no superfluous words; Sáenz’s writing is lean and packs a powerful emotional punch.

TEACHING TIPS: I would recommend this book to anyone – whether teenager or adult – who ever felt different. And that it’s OK to be that way. This is a universal tale. But besides being just a beautiful love story, the book’s themes include dealing with the feelings that come with an incarcerated sibling, a parent with emotional scars from war, and the challenges that come with being gay, male, and Mexican American. This book is for anyone who feels as if there’s not enough compassion in the world.

If librarians and teachers want to try a writing exercise inspired by this book, I would ask teens who have read the book if they can attempt to reproduce Sáenz’s succinct writing style. You can tell them it’s kind of like writing dialogue on Twitter or that it’s very close to poetry. Ask them to communicate as much as they can with as few words as possible.

AUTHOR (DESCRIPTION FROM INDIEBOUND): Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an American Book Award–winning author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a Printz Honor Book, the Stonewall Award winner, the Pura Belpré Award winner, and won the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/Young Adult Fiction. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Eileenfontenot headshot Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.

Book Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

6413788By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Zach is eighteen. He is bright and articulate. He’s also an alcoholic and in rehab instead of high school, but he doesn’t remember how he got there. He’s not sure he wants to remember. Something bad must have happened. Something really, really bad. Remembering sucks and being alive – well, what’s up with that? 

MY TWO CENTS: Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (2009) is a powerful and heart-wrenching story of a young man’s encounter with trauma and violence and his journey toward healing. Eighteen-year-old Zach wakes up in a rehabilitation center far from his home in El Paso, TX for what he thinks is his abuse of alcohol, but in reality, he cannot remember why he’s there or how he got there. Throughout the narrative, Zach reflects on moments in his life that might have led to his arrival at a rehabilitation center. His therapist/counselor, Adam, encourages him to remember the event that landed him at the center so that he can begin healing; however, the pain is too great and Zach remains emotionally paralyzed for much of the novel. At the center, Zach meets a diverse group of people that struggle with addiction and mental illness, and he is forced to contend with his own struggles; however, his refusal to remember leaves him more vulnerable to pain. He meets an older man, Rafael, who is at the center seeking treatment for his alcoholism, which worsened after the death of his son. Zach looks at Rafael as a father figure, and in return, Rafael provides advice and guidance for processing pain and trauma. Rafael shares with Zach that one of the ways to get the “monster” to stop hurting is to sing to it. When Rafael leaves the center, Zach is distraught and appears to be spiraling down again. Zach must learn to sing to the monster if he wishes to find healing and one day leave the center.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a beautiful novel. Through Saenz’s prose the reader is privy to Zach’s inner pain and struggle. Saenz’s captures the complex relationship between addiction and trauma in such a way that the reader cannot escape until we know that Zach will be okay. It is obvious through Zach’s memories that varying forms of violence have always been a part of his upbringing, and it is once they culminate into a catastrophic event, that he is forced to deal with it. The importance of remembering is palpable throughout the novel. As a reader, I begged Zach to remember so that I could understand why he’s at the rehabilitation center; however, as Zach recounted his story, I felt that maybe remembering would be too painful. The reader’s investment in a character is a sign of an incredible author and remarkable story. Last Night addresses an abundance of issues ranging from alcoholism, abuse, and death to think about ways of healing and living differently. As a part of Latina/o young adult literature, Saenz’s novel stands out not only because of its wonderful prose but because the issue of addiction and its consequences on the self and others is a conversation that requires more attention.  Overall, Last Night I Sang to the Monster demands to be read multiple times in order to really appreciate Zach’s healing process and Saenz’s marvelous words.

One of the aspects of the novel that I find most appealing is the discussions of how trauma and healing affect families. Zach’s alcoholism extends from a much longer history of abuse in his family, and he is forced to contend with this reality when his brother murders his parents. Saenz captures the perplexity of surviving a traumatic event and suggests that such survival does not always mean one has healed. Zach’s healing process is far from linear, and at times, it feels as if he is not moving or is instead regressing. However, it is precisely these movements or lack thereof that make the novel feel that much more real. Dealing with trauma on an individual, familial, and communal level is an on-going process. Zach’s often refusal and fear to face his monster further reveals how difficult healing can be. That the title itself suggests that Zach eventually sings to the monster simultaneously sheds light on the role that hope plays in healing processes. A few other Latina/o young adult texts that deal with issues of healing, trauma, addiction, and/or illness include Isabel Quintero’s Gabi A Girl in Pieces, Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy, E.E. Charlon-Trujillo’s Fat Angie, and Gloria Velazquez’s Tyrone’s Betrayal.

AUTHOR: Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children’s books. He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order. In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He studied as a PhD student at the University of Iowa and Stanford University. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program. He continues to teach in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Last Night I Sang to the Monster, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.org, indiebound,org, goodreads.com, barnesandnoble.com, and amazon.com.

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Book Review: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

SammyBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: A young adult novel Latino-style–the year is 1969. America is at war, Hollywood is a dirt-poor Chicano barrio in small town America, and Sammy and Juliana, about to head into their senior year, are in love.

MY TWO CENTS: Sáenz creates strong main and supporting characters long remembered after finishing the novel. Sammy’s voice was spot-on as a teen boy who grapples with the personal issues all teens do–friends, love, fears and hopes for the future–while also dealing with poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War era. Sáenz brilliantly mixes Spanish and English, local “neighborhood” issues with larger social issues like drug addiction and homophobia. While Sammy and Juliana are in love, as the book blurb states, this is not a traditional love story. Something tragic happens shortly into the novel that ends the love affair. I won’t spoil it, but the relationship was short-lived, and Sammy spends the rest of the novel dealing with this loss and many others. If you’re looking for something light-hearted with a happy ending, this one’s not for you. Sáenz left me feeling what it’s like to get pounded by life, as Sammy was and as many people are.

TEACHING TIPS: This book has many issues worth pursuing in the classroom: immigration, poverty, grief, drug-use, discrimination based on race and sexual preference. Parts of this novel could easily be used by teachers in different ways. I say parts because I don’t believe every novel used in class needs to be read cover-to-cover. A history teacher, for example, may want to zero in on certain aspects of a novel, but may not want to handle elements typically taught by an English teacher, like character development or symbolism.

The thread about the Vietnam War could be pulled from the novel and used to complement nonfiction pieces in high school history classes. The character Pifas is drafted and students protest the war by wearing black arm bands and staging a sit-in in the school cafeteria. These were among the most memorable moments in the novel. The conversation between Sammy and Pifas about being drafted is emotionally gut-wrenching, and my heart sank when Gigi gets out of the car and falls to her knees in reaction to news about Pifas.

English teachers could use nonfiction pieces about any of the novel’s issues to attack author’s craft, investigating the differences between an objective, factual version of events versus a fictionalized one. Students could then choose an issue from the novel that is still relevant today (hint: all of them) and write two short versions of an event, one as a nonfiction writer would and the other as a fiction writer would.

LEXILE: 390

AUTHOR: (information comes directly from Cinco Puntos Press and University of Texas at El Paso)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. After graduating from high school in 1972, he entered the seminary. He was later ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood three and a half years later. At the age of 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.

Sáenz is an award-winning poet and author of books for children and young adults. His first YA novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Americas Book Award, The Paterson Prize, and the JHunt Award. It was named one of the top ten Young Adult novels by the American Library Association and one of the top books of the year by the Center for Children’s Books, The New York Public Library, and the Miami Herald.

His other YA novels are:

He Forgot to Say Goodbye   Last Night I Sang to the Monster   Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Sammy & Juliana in Hollywoodvisit your local library or book store. Also, check out Cinco Puntos Press, IndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.

Changes I’ve Seen, Changes I Hope to See

 

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

1963, Small Town, Alabama: I’m an immigrant kid in the second grade, well in command of English by now and eighty percent Americanized. Nobody brown or trigueño whose last name isn’t Quintero lives around here. Matter of fact, we’re one of the rare foreign families in the whole of Perry County—a bit of exotica, like strange but harmless birds that show up in the chicken yard one day.

With our nearest relatives in Argentina, seven thousand miles removed, my mother’s best friend is a war bride from Italy whose nostalgia for the old country goes hand in hand with Mama’s pining for Buenos Aires. Their conversations are peppered with overlapping terms from the Romance languages of their backgrounds. My father has his own ways of navigating the cultural void. He’s no communist, but he listens to Radio Habana Cuba on the shortwave radio. Fidel’s propaganda is something to ridicule, yet nothing else on the dial delivers Spanish. And he craves Spanish. That’s what your native tongue does—transports you back to the place you sprang from.

In 1963, nobody uses the terms Latino or Hispanic. Diversity may be in the dictionary, but if anyone’s applying it to ethnic groups, it hasn’t reached these backwaters of the American South. And as far as I know, the word multicultural hasn’t been invented; for that, we’ll have to wait another twenty years.

When I, the second-grade immigrant kid, drop by the Perry County Public Library, it’s to a creaky old clapboard house whose floors sag under the weight of books. The library at my elementary school is much the same, dusty and clogged with outdated materials. Luckily, my dad’s faculty status at a local college gives me library privileges. There, a small but gleaming collection of children’s books entices me up to the second floor.

I’m a bookworm. I devour everything published for kids. The books I love best entrance me through the power of story, not by how well their characters reflect me. Even so, I can’t help but notice that none of the characters has snapping brown eyes and olive skin. The girls in the books I read have names like Cathy and Susan. No one stumbles over these girls’ surnames and their parents don’t speak accented English. The closest thing to a Latino character I come across is Ferdinand, the Bull. ¡Olé!

Thirty-eight years later, when my youngest daughter is in fifth grade, we read aloud together almost daily. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, it’s wondrous to encounter a Latina character that feels like a real girl, not a shadow puppet with easy gestures that stand in for Hispanic. Fast forward to 2013, when Dora the Explorer is almost as well known as Mickey Mouse, and authors with names like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Guadalupe Garcia McCall show up in the stacks of the local public library with regularity. Compared to the Latin@ offerings of my childhood, this feels like an embarrassment of riches.

IMG_1291

Lila, the bookworm and author, today.

In March 2012, just after publishing my coming-of-age graphic novel, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, I find myself at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. There, my eyes are opened. I discover that the exploding population of young Latin@ American readers is still under served. On the whole, children’s publishing favors a model that reflects the Anglo world familiar to most editors, agents, and booksellers. The terms diversity and multiculturalism roll off the tongue easily now, but books about minority kids are still not rolling off the presses in sufficient numbers to match the need.

Through this blog, together with my younger collaborators— all of whom grew up in an era far more open to diverse cultures—I have the glorious opportunity to make a difference. I can celebrate the Latin@ characters that do exist in children’s books. I can help promote authors and illustrators who incline toward such stories or whose heritage broadcasts the message to Latin@ youth that they too can write and illustrate books. I can connect parents to new offerings in the biblioteca and hunt down librarians, scholars, and teachers eager to share their expertise with a non-academic audience. That’s what I’m here for—to dig out books, authors, and experts that affirm Latin@ identity and give them a friendly shove into the limelight.