Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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



This lyrical, passionate novel,  quietly draws you into the memorable and emotional story of Aristotle(Ari) Mendoza and Dante Quintana, two Mexican American 15 year olds, who spend a year growing and learning about friendship, family, love and manhood.
Aristotle and Dante bond first over their unusual names, and then as they become friends over literature, family, ethnicity, masculinity, and sexuality. Dante’s intelligence, self-awareness and passion push a more reserved, Ari into a place that is both exciting and uncomfortable, while Ari helps Dante when he is challenged with the ideas of what it means to be both Mexican and masculine.  This novel is clear, vivid and compelling in its depictions of the two young men, struggling to grow into their identities and sexuality.

Genre - Realistic Fiction
Text Structure - Novel
Lexile Level  - HL380L

Themes  - ethnic and sexual identity, coming of age, family, love, friendship, loyalty, trust, persevering

Rings of Culture represented -

Ethnicity: Mexican/Mexican American
Age:  15-18
Gender: male
Socio-Economic: working class/middle class
National: USA
Religion: Catholic
Orientation: Homosexual

Why it’s VABBulous -  

  • Saenz  artfully uses  surface level cultural elements of literature, language, games, celebrations, food and dress to help illuminate the complexities of the characters.

  • The novel dips  below the surface on the Iceberg of Culture on several issues.  

    • The realities of family, identity, social class, handling struggles are seen through the iceberg concept of culture in nonverbal communication, notions of modesty, concepts of beauty, relationships to animals, nature of friendships, adolescence and concept of self to name a few.

    • In dealing with the homosexuality of both Dante and Ari, Saenz does so while simultaneously dealing with  the nature of friendships, adolescence and manhood. Saenz deals with subject of homosexuality subtly, which works in this novel. It flows into the story as one part of the multi layered coming of age that these young men are grappling with.

    • The story of Ari and Dante’s emergent love for one another seems to unfold honestly.  

    • Their coming of age is seen through multiple rings of culture, age, gender, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation. It seems that even before grappling with their homosexuality, both young men are working through their understanding of what it means to Mexican/Mexican American.

    • Saenz presents us with snapshots of diversity within ethnicity, that of course is also reality.  

Ideas for CLR -

Set it Off (Into the Text)

Reading Whip Around + 6 Word Memoir

  1. Put students in groups of 4-5 if they are not already.
  2. Give each student a pre-prepared sentence strip, with lines/sentences from the story.

    • Selected lines from story should reveal details, traits of the main character(s).

  3. Have students read around in their groups, each student’s reading their sentence strip aloud.

  4. Next, students identify 6 most important ideas, details, traits that they can from the strips

  5. Write a 6 word memoir together about the main character of the story.

  6. Whole group Whip Around to share 6 Word Memoirs.


Sentences from Text -

  • One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.

  • My mom was preparing lunch for a meeting with her Catholic-Church-lady friends.

  • I learned how to swim this summer. No, that’s not true. Someone taught me. Dante.

  • So what if I don’t look exactly like an American.

  • I caught myself whispering over and over again, “my brother is in prison, my brother is in prison, my brother is in prison.”

6 Word Memoir - Brother gone, swimming changes, Dante friend.