Professor Wins American Library Awards

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

On Jan. 28, UTEP creative writing professor Benjamin Alire Sáenz started his day with some outstanding news.

The American Library Association (ALA) had convened for its midwinter meeting and announced its Youth Media Awards winners for the top books for children and young adults. Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe had won the Pura Belpré Award and the Stonewall Book Award, and been recognized as a 2013 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor Book.Benjamin Alire Saenz recently received multiple awards for his latest novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceBenjamin Alire Saenz recently received multiple awards for his latest novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“In the face of these three awards, I feel humbled and filled with gratitude that my book has touched so many people,” said Sáenz, chair of UTEP’s Department of Creative Writing. “These awards will gain me an even greater audience and that is what every writer hopes for. I am a lucky, lucky man.”

The ALA is recognized worldwide for the high quality it represents as well as its guidance for parents, educators, librarians and others in selecting the best materials for youth. ALA awards encourage original and creative work and include the prestigious Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe brings readers the tale of 15-year-old loner Aristotle Mendoza and his friendship with Dante Quintana. The ALA described the book’s artistry, stating, “By addressing issues of identity, friendship, family and love, Sáenz pushes beyond geography, sexuality and cultural identity to create a truly universal novel.”

Pura Belpré Award Committee Chair Charmette S. Kuhn-Kendrick said, “Sáenz demonstrates superb use of language and character development, while gently exploring important aspects of identity without straying into gender or cultural stereotypes.”

The Pura Belpré Award honors a Latino writer whose children's books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience. It is named in honor of Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library and a pioneer in preserving and disseminating Puerto Rican folklore. First presented in 1996, it is jointly administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA, and the National Association to Promote Library Services to the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA). The awards committee was comprised of seven professionals in library studies from all over the country.

The Stonewall Book Award - Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award is given annually to English-language children’s and young-adult books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience. This award was first presented by the ALA in 2011 and is selected by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Stonewall Book Awards Committee of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT), the first professional GLBT organization of its kind in the United States, with support from the ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services. Members of the 2013 Stonewall Book Awards Committee came from elementary and university libraries including Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma, Philadelphia and Vancouver.

The Michael L. Printz Award honors excellence in literature written for young adults. The annual award, first given in 2000, is administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and sponsored by Booklist. It is named in honor of the late Michael L. Printz, longtime YALSA member and Topeka, Kansas, school librarian, known for discovering and promoting quality books for young adults.

“It should be noted that all of these committees that work within or are associated with the American Library Association work independently of each other, so it's really great that so many people loved Aristotle and Dante,” Sáenz said.

The novel was even more recently lauded as one of the Top 10 Fiction Books for Young Adults by the ALA as well as called out by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) as a 2013 Notable Children’s Book. According to the Notables Criteria, "as applied to children's books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (birth through age 14) that reflect and encourage children's interests in exemplary ways.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division. It is Sáenz’s 19th published work and his fourth specifically for young adults. He also has published four adult novels, two short story collections, five books of poetry, and four bilingual children’s books. In this day and age of so much uncertainty within the publishing industry, his success is a hopeful beacon to authors coming out of UTEP.

“Professor Sáenz is receiving the national accolades he so richly deserves,” said Patricia Witherspoon, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “He is clearly one of the top two or three authors of young adults’ literature in the U. S. today, and the College of Liberal Arts is proud of all the honors he has received recently, including those from the American Library Association.”

Award presentations will be held at the ALA Annual Conference in June in Chicago and Sáenz plans to  attend. In the meantime, he is working on two novels – one for young adults and one for adults (no title for either yet) and teaching the next generation of award-winning writers on campus.