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.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe is a lovely novel. Written from the perspective of Aristotle, the book is well-served by simple but elegant prose. It’s about negotiating identity, and not just in relation to sexual orientation, but also in relation to to family and culture—Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican American and they struggle with defining their relationships with their Mexican heritage. Aristotle and Dante is also about friendship and love in a variety of forms, not just about romance. The relationship between Aristotle and his parents is an important one—the book is about wanting to understand your parents, not only about wanting to be understood—and they’re fully realized characters in their own right, not always the case in YA fiction. The novel deals with serious issues such as PTSD, incarcerated family members, the subtle effect of cultural racism, and features some violence, but it’s ultimately a slow-paced and mellow narrative that remains, at its core, a coming-of-age story of friendship between teenage boys.
I’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘LGBTQ literature’ since two of the young adult books that I’d already read before we talked about LGBTQ YA in class had featured characters who weren’t straight—one protagonist was gay, the other lesbian (Kind of. The lead ends up with a woman, but I read her as bisexual. Works either way, that’s kind of the point)—but neither of those were explicitly ‘LGBTQ lit’. A classmate read David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy and commented on the casual visibility of LGBTQ characters in the town. I later discovered that the book is overwhelmingly referred to as a ‘gay utopia’ or a ‘gaytopia.’ This seems like a reflection of the problem underlying LGBTQ representation in YA lit—it’s still limited to its own ‘genre’ corner. If you write a fluffy romance for queer characters, well, it kind of has to be in a world where queer people actually exist and aren’t discriminated against—real levity doesn’t mesh with the kind of of conflict created by homophobia and discrimination, and your characters need to be normalized, not odd ones out—rom com leads are every-day people, if a little quirky, (just like you!) who are in love. The fact that when you write light romances for queer kids, everyone identifies it as utopian fiction, well, that says something. It isn’t a good something. Gay kids deserve the conventions too. But the conventions, as we recognize them, are heteronormative.
I get the feeling (and I really hope) that we’re reaching something of a tipping point here. As I mentioned, two of the books that I read this summer that didn’t star straight teens, Ash and Proxy, were both really well-written, enjoyable books in completely different genres—fairy-tale fantasy and sci-fi action respectively—that I wouldn’t identify as LGBTQ books first and foremost. I mean, I would certainly mention it if someone where looking for gay leads, but Proxy is a sci-fi action novel, not ‘gay sci-fi action.’ I’ve seen the term ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ used to describe this kind of spreading representation. I look forward to more representation of LGBTQ characters in ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ fiction; it’s needed to disrupt the heteronormativity that pervades stories of every experience that isn’t explicitly ‘not for straight people’—coming out, dealing with homophobia, being gay or bi or transgendered in a predominantly straight, cisgendered society.
A few resources for those looking for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly YA lit:
and, of course, many YA book blogs have ‘LGBTQ’ tags or, alternatively, many LGBTQ book blogs have tags for ‘Young Adult’ tags: