The Gift of Reading: Of Authors, Words, and MagicMichael M. Guevara
For most of the past year and half, I have spent most of my waking hours querying or obsessing over querying literary agents for my young adult novel The Closest Thing to a Normal Life.
When I started this whole process, I had no idea what I was doing, but years ago, through mutual acquaintances and the wonders of the interweb, I became friends with the young adult author Andrew Smith, whose novel Grasshopper Jungle still remains one of my favorite books and a perennial recommendation to readers, and he stepped up with encouragement, advice, and support.
Andrew introduced me to Matthew MacNish, whom he dubbed the query whisperer, which is where love and the gift of reading collided to create magic. Part of a query letter includes listing novels or authors your book/writing is similar to. My list included Benjamin Alire Sáenz, author of a few of my other favorite young adult novels: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World.
Now the magic.
On just some random day, Matthew MacNish asked if I would like to join him and Andrew on a Zoom call with a few of their friends. Their friends included A.S. King, Printz award winning author of Dig, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and Switch; Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank, Burned, and People Kill People; and—hold the phone, grab your knickers, shut the front door—Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Ultimately, Benjamin Alire Sáenz wasn’t able to attend, but that Zoom call still ranks right up there with finally signing with a literary agent this past August as a highlight of reading and writing life. In that Zoom call, Amy King told me that as writers, we build paper boats; we don’t control the wind. For me, the paper boats Benjamin Alire Sáenz creates are stunning works of craftsmanship that truly make reading a gift from writers.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is the follow up to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and just like Secrets of the Universe, Waters of the World is filled with the love, family, friendship, pain, and heart that leaps off the page. Set in the late 1980s, Ari and Dante are trying to navigate a relationship together in a world that isn’t ready for them to even have a relationship.
Readers feel the deep connection between characters, the strength of the family when Ari, in a conversation with his mother, wrestles with who and how he is:
I looked at her. “Does God hate me? Me and Dante?”
“Of course not. I’ve never read anything in the Bible that indicates that God hates. Hate isn’t in the job description.”
“You sound so sure, Mom. Maybe you’re not such a good Catholic.”
“Maybe some people would say I’m not. But I don’t need anybody to tell me how to live my faith.”
“But me, I’m a sin, right?”
“No, you’re not a sin. You’re a young man. You’re a human being.” And then she smiled at me. “And you’re my son.” (36)
Aristotle carries some of his mother’s encouragement in a letter he writes to Dante as he seeks to find himself and find where he and Dante fit in the world:
I try not to think about these things. I don’t want to think about them.
But the thoughts are so incredibly beautiful to me. And I’m asking myself why the entire world believes that these thoughts—my thoughts—are so ugly. I know you don’t have the answers to my questions. But I think you ask these questions too.
I just keep picturing you in a hospital, your smile almost hidden by the bruises those guys left on you. They thought you were just an animal they could kick around and even kill. But I think it was them—they were the animals.
When will we all get to be human, Dante. (58)
But no matter how much Aristotle and Dante want to find their place in a world that doesn’t understand them and doesn’t want to understand them, there is always loss and the fight to have the life you want.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz delivers the gift of reading in this wrenchingly gorgeous follow up to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Santa, if you’re listening, arranging a chance to finally meet Benjamin Alire Sáenz would make an excellent gift. Well, that and a publisher to acquire my novel.
Download the lesson below for a classroom activity on discovering and creating metaphors.
Michael Méndez Guevara is a former high school journalism and English teacher who spent his time in the classroom helping students see themselves as writers and fall in love with reading through the world of young adult literature. As an educational sales consultant with Perfection Learning®, Michael works with teachers and schools on improving their literacy instruction and providing resources to help students achieve academic success. He has taught elementary school, middle school, and high school and has worked as a district level leader and served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed the state’s current literacy standards. He is the father of three adult sons, the youngest a student at the University of Kansas—Rock Chalk! Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel, The Closest Thing to a Normal Life. When he's not reading, writing, or running, Michael is fully committed to watching as much Law & Order as possible.