Buzzed Books #4 by Alise Hamilton
Why all Writers Should be Paying Attention to Young Adult Literature
I first took note of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe during the ALA awards last winter, when it won the Pura Belpre Award, the Stonewall Book Award and was named as a Printz Honor Book. I have been trying to inject more young adult literature into my reading—a good part due to the direction of my latest manuscript—but also because of the general excitement surrounding the genre. During my tenure as an independent bookseller, I saw YA as a continually growing genre—both in the store, and as publishers expanded, or developed, their YA imprints. With YA, I witnessed reluctant readers, both young and old, engaged with fiction, at the same time I was observing regular readers enthusiastically consuming YA titles. More so, I have been inspired by authors such as Kelly Link, Jack Gantos, Sherman Alexie, Laurie Halse Anderson, M.T. Anderson, and Chris Lynch (to only name a few) as they push the limits of genre, delve, without fear or hesitation into difficult and dark topics, and stay true (or perhaps finally return) to the cornerstone of fiction: story.
Yet, despite all this excitement, there seems to exist a general notion that young adult literature lacks substance, or merit on a prose level, and I suspect this comes from the enormous popularity (and promotion) of a handful of “blockbuster” titles: from The Hunger Games, to Twilight, to Pretty Little Liars. Books like these, big screen ready and seemingly published with pre-conceived tie-in merchandising, are not indicative of the genre as a whole. (This is not, of course, to malign the many wonderful books that find a larger audience through film or television or to suggest they are inherently inferior to other, perhaps more obscure, literary titles.)
What I mean to say it that Bejamin Alire Saenz’s award winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is not “just” a fantastic YA novel, it is a fantastic novel. Ari and Dante, the novel’s young protagonists, are two very different, but compatible, outsiders who find a strong friendship in one another. As characters they are undeniably likeable—two, self-proclaimed “nice guys”—a story-telling element that is deceivingly difficult to pull off. They each come from in-tact, nuclear families, and while the parents, especially Ari’s, are flawed, they are engaged and deeply loving. In this way, Saenz did not allow himself any “tricks.” Aristotle and Dante…is a straightforward love-slash-coming-of-age story, which utilizes impeccable characterization, fine pacing, and accessible (while interesting) prose that any writing student would do well to pay attention to, or enjoy, simply, as pleasure reading.
That said, I do think that setting the book in the late 1980s is something of a cheap trick to avoid addressing new communication technologies such as text messaging, emails, facebook or twitter—especially as these mediums pertain to teenagers. While it could be argued that setting the novel in the 80s raises the stakes on the topic of homosexuality, it is not beyond reason to think teens in the last twenty years have an equally difficult time coming out, as is presented in the book.
Which is to say, too, that the book is relatable—and not only for gay teens, although I do imagine a book like this can—and surely has—offer a considerable amount of comfort to a young person struggling with his sexuality. And isn’t comfort an important aspect of literature, especially young adult literature? Stories don’t need to be comforting to be worthwhile—but is there such a thing as a book-lover who has never sought comfort in his favorite novel or poem?
What Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe delivers is what readers most often crave: beautiful sentences, characters to root for, and a story that keeps you turning the page.
Pair with: your first beer
Alise Hamilton (Episode 7, essay) earned her MFA from Lesley University and holds a BFA in creative writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College. Her short fiction appeared in the Francesca Lia Block-edited anthology Love Magick.