Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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

Title:  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2012
Pages:  359
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  LGBT, First Love, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was a Stonewall winner for 2013, and within a month of the announcement I had seen it referenced, or had it recommended to me, at least a dozen times. And it deserves the praise!  It tells the story of 15 year old Ari, a loner living in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, and Dante, the quirky, outgoing young man who becomes his first true friend.  Both Ari and Dante are dealing with the usual host of adolescent issues-redefining your relationships with your parents and family, navigating the treacherous waters of the high-school social strata, transitioning to adulthood, and, of course, dating and first loves.  With Dante, Ari finds an unexpected friend; effusive where he is reticent, affectionate where he is reserved, outgoing where he is taciturn.  For some reason, this friendship works for both of them, and the boys share many secrets with each other over the course of their friendship.  Ari finally has someone to talk to about the brother in prison that his parents won't even acknowledge exists, and Dante finally has someone to whom he can admit that he would rather kiss boys than girls.  Ari's feelings about Dante are confusing and unsettling, and their friendship is not always smooth sailing, but in the end both boys find comfort, a deep kindness, and love.

One of the wonderful things about this book is that while it has strong LGBT themes, it is not just a "gay" story.  Like any "real" person, Ari and Dante are both more than just their sexual orientation, and Saenz does an excellent job of showing the intersection of things family connections, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation in creating identity.  To be honest, while I was certainly drawn into the story of Ari and Dante's friendship, the part of the story that was the most touching to me was Ari's relationship with his father, a Viet Nam veteran who never left the war behind.  Their interactions, and Ari's longing for meaningful interactions with his distant father, are a large part of the emotional engine that drove this story.  Saenz also takes on the issue of gay bashing, which despite the improvement of the general climate for LGBT people in our country is still too often occurring.  The fact that the novel is set in the late 80s, when I myself was about the age of Ari and Dante, gave it a certain resonance for me that a young adult reader wouldn't have, but Saenz did a good job creating an authentic setting that any reader should be able to appreciate.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Museum of Thieves, by Lian Tanner

Title:  Museum of Thieves
Author:  Lian Tanner
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2010
Pages:  320
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Freedom, Good vs. Evil
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  From Goodreads

Welcome to the tyrannical city of Jewel, where impatience is a sin and boldness is a crime.Goldie Roth has lived in Jewel all her life. Like every child in the city, she wears a silver guardchain and is forced to obey the dreaded Blessed Guardians. She has never done anything by herself and won’t be allowed out on the streets unchained until Separation Day.When Separation Day is canceled, Goldie, who has always been both impatient and bold, runs away, risking not only her own life but also the lives of those she has left behind. In the chaos that follows, she is lured to the mysterious Museum of Dunt, where she meets the boy Toadspit and discovers terrible secrets. Only the cunning mind of a thief can understand the museum’s strange, shifting rooms. Fortunately, Goldie has a talent for thieving.
Which is just as well, because the leader of the Blessed Guardians has his own plans for the museum—plans that threaten the lives of everyone Goldie loves. And it will take a daring thief to stop him. . . .

I really enjoyed this story.  It is certainly not traditional fantasy, with its elements of dystopianism.  Goldie's character is easy to relate to.  She feels oppressed by the constant supervision and is (literally) chained to her parents, teachers, and even her bed, to keep her "safe".  As an adult reader, the use of the "safety of the children" as the excuse for controlling the population definitely resonated with me.  There are so many actions in our society that are not necessarily just or moral that have been justified through concerns for "the children"-everything from segregated schools to forcing gay teachers to live in the closet to abstinence-only sex education and the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.

The premise of the museum as a repository for all of the evil, wild things in society is an interesting one, and the museum itself as a character would be good for teaching personification.  All of the characters are pretty well-developed for a genre novel, and you could have a good discussion about how Goldie changes from the beginning to the end of the story.  Since this book is part of a series, there are lots of opportunities for children who like the story to keep reading, always a good thing with young readers.  Overall, I can see this book being used for either guided or independent reading activities.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pie, by Sarah Weeks

Title:  Pie
Author:  Sarah Weeks
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2011
Pages:  183
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Overcoming Loss, Family
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When Alice's Aunt Polly, the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, passes away, she takes with her the secret to her world-famous pie-crust recipe. Or does she? In her will, Polly leaves the recipe to her extraordinarily fat, remarkably disagreeable cat, Lardo . . . and then leaves Lardo in the care of Alice.
Suddenly, the whole town is wondering how you leave a recipe to a cat. Everyone wants to be the next big pie-contest winner, and it's making them pie-crazy. It's up to Alice and her friend Charlie to put the pieces together and discover the not-so-secret recipe for happiness: Friendship. Family. And the pleasure of donig something for the right reason.

Everybody loves pie!  Sarah Weeks must have known that going into writing this book.  Each chapter starts with a real pie recipe that goes along with the plot, an interesting literary device that can add to the conversation with students-why did the author choose this recipe to go with this chapter?  And the pies look delicious!  Perhaps the best thing for me as the reader of this book is a bunch of new recipes to try for my next holiday desert!

Alice follows a line of children's book characters with parents that just don't understand her.  Alice's mother is a pretty horrible person for most of the book-greedy and high-strung and rather neglectful.  Her father is portrayed as a long-suffering spouse who really has no control over his wife's over-the-top emotional tendencies.  Luckily for Alice-and the reader-her mother has an epiphany towards the end of the story that leads to a reconciliation between her and Alice that helps round out the books overall sweet appeal.

Alice herself is plucky, a word almost always reserved for a young female character who shows spunk and determination.  Alice had both of those things in spades, and her desire to figure out who is trying to steal her aunt's pie crust recipe is the driving force of the novel.  But the book also explores issues of identity, grief, and friendship, making it ripe with possibilities for discussion and written response.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Interview with Sarah Weeks