We Need Diverse Books: Spotlight on Benjamin Alire Saenz

benjaminsaenzLast month, I began a series devoted to highlighting diversity within YA literature in an effort to support the We Need Diverse Books campaign–check out my first post in the series for more information and to read about Sara Farizan’s novels. This month, I thought I’d focus on another critically acclaimed YA writer, Benjamin Alire Saenz, an award-winning author (2013 Printz Honor!) and poet.

A remarkably unique voice in YA literature, Saenz draws heavily from his own experiences as a young Chicano boy growing up on the Mexico/New Mexico border in the 1960s. His work also often deals with sexuality and homophobia, a result of Saenz’ own struggles with coming out which he did quite late in life. His intersecting themes of race, culture, class, and sexuality certainly make his novels stand out amongst the YA canon but it is not this alone that makes him so noteworthy.

To put it simply, Saenz is a master craftsman. He writes prose imbued with such soulful, heart-aching lyricism that it’s impossible not to be drawn into the layered lives he depicts. Consider the opening passage from his novel Last Night I Sang to the Monster (2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults):

I want to gather up all the words in the world and write them down on little pieces of paper–then throw them in the air. They would look like tiny sparrows flying toward the sun. Without all those words, the sky would be clear and perfect and blue. The deafening world would be beautiful in all that silence.

last night i sang to the monsterThe novel is about a teenage boy, Zach, who finds himself in a rehab center for reasons he can’t exactly remember. The story unfolds in bits and pieces as he tries to unravel his past and make peace with the tragic events leading up to his present circumstances. Given the fact that the book deals with issues as varied as child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and suicide, it may come as a surprise that it is also breathtakingly beautiful. Indeed, the passage above captures some of the poetic sensibility that is inherent in all of Saenz’ works and that elevates his books from mere stories to magic. It’s no surprise that Saenz is also an award-winning poet, a fact that explain why when I read his novels, I find myself so often pausing to savor a particular phrase or paragraph for its seemingly effortless eloquence.

In fact, it’s the combination of effortlessness and eloquence that makes his novels both immensely readable and accessible to teens and adults alike. His lyricism, although clearly well-crafted, never feels contrived or overwrought. Perhaps, more importantly–given that his novels tend to be in first-person narration–it also doesn’t feel unbelievable that a teenage boy would be speaking in such a way. Take 17-year-old Sammy Santos, in Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood (2005 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults), a young man who finds himself desperately in love with Juliana, a girl from his barrio, in 1969. His voice is an appealing blend of minimalism and elegance that somehow captures the tone and spirit of a boy on the brink of manhood at a time rife with upheaval, injustice, and hope.

sammyandjuliana2004In one of my favorite passages from the book, Sammy is sitting with friends discussing what they would do when (more likely if) they leave the dirt-poor barrio they call ‘Hollywood’. Pifas has just announced that he’s enlisted in the Army, essentially a death sentence for a poor Chicano boy at the height of the Vietnam War.  Their friend Gigi announces she’d like to sing to everyone’s surprise. Sammy’s description of her singing sheds light on both his character as well as illustrates Saenz’ lovely use of description:

God, she could sing. And in the moonlight, she didn’t seem like a girl at all. She was a woman with a voice. Any man would die just to hear that voice. I swear–just to hear it. I thought the world had stopped to listen to Gigi–Gigi Carmona from Hollywood. I could see tears rolling down Pifas’ face. As pure as Gigi’s voice. I could feel those wings inside me again–like they were coming back to life, like all they needed was just one beautiful song for them to get up and beating again….Maybe this was the way the world should end. Not with me and my own thoughts, not with high school boys using their fists on each other, not with Pifas going off to war–but with the tears of boys falling to the beat of a woman’s song, the sounds of guns and bombs and fists against flesh disappearing. This is the way the world should end: with boys turning into men as they listen to a woman sing.

If you read all of Saenz’ YA books (which I highly recommend), a few similarities become readily apparent. For one, there is a powerful poignancy, even melancholy, that underlies all of his work. His characters are outsiders, introverts, alone within worlds of pain that they must come to understand before they can find some measure of peace and happiness. In all cases, it is language that enables them to find redemption from the pain of loss, the cruelty of discrimination, and the relentless pressures of growing up other. Fundamentally, though, Saenz’s novels are about love. Love in the broadest sense–from love of family to first love to love of place–each book revolves around the varied forms of love and the weight of it in our lives.

aristotle and danteLove, in all its complexity, is at the heart of Saenz’s most recent and arguably most famous novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2013 Printz Honor Book, 2013 Stonewall Award Winner). On the surface, it is the story of friendship between two very different Mexican-American teenage boys, Ari and Dante. At its core, though, the novel is about learning how to love; a theme that resonates throughout all of Saenz’s novels. It is clear that the protagonists of all his books are lost, often angry, always afraid and, given their circumstances, it makes sense that they feel this way. To come back to the idea of diversity and discrimination, it is difficult to both give and receive love in a world that alternately disdains and dismisses you. To love in the face of violence, self-doubt, helplessness, and prejudice is an act of great courage.

Ari’s journey in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of self-discovery, as he navigates how to love and be loved. At one point in the book, he says, “And I knew that there was something about me that Mrs. Quintana saw and loved. And even though I felt it was a beautiful thing, I also felt it was a weight. Not that she meant it to be a weight. But love was always something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” As Ari shows us throughout the course of the novel, it takes courage to carry that weight, to embrace it not as a burden but a blessing. Ari comes to realize that the act of loving is a kind of freedom, even a revolution, despite all that society might tell you to the contrary.

I hope you take the time to read one of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s compelling works as you will walk away with a feeling both of weight and wonder at the power of his words. Thanks for reading!

~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Time’s Edge by Rysa Walker

One thought on “We Need Diverse Books: Spotlight on Benjamin Alire Saenz”

  1. I wish these books were being read in High School instead of Farenheit 451 and a bunch of War books! Go to the National Council of Teachers of English and ask them to add these to their reading list for teenagers!

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