history, lgbtq+, middle grade, social-emotional

Middle Grade Must-Read: Alice Austen Lived Here

Alice Austen Lived Here (Scholastic Press)
Written by Alex Gino

There is an ugly event happening within portions of America at the moment, a rising tide of transphobia & gender ignorance prodded on by greedy media interested in driving up traffic and morally rotten politicians who think throwing hateful red meat to their voting base guarantees them electoral success. All of this spits in the face of reality which is that LGBTQ+ people have existed and lived in our societies since the earliest days humans walked the Earth. Transgender people are not a “new fad”; they have been ever-present; in the United States, reactionary forces have been very efficient at driving these people into even further marginalization. That does not extinguish the truth, though. There is hope that we can end this hate, not by listening to the transphobes but by holding up and supporting transgender youth.

Sam is nonbinary and very comfortable with their identity. Their best friend TJ is also NB, and they spend almost every day together. Sam has also made friends with the queer couple who live downstairs in their apartment building. Sam struggles with expressing their identity in school, particularly in history class, where their teacher talks almost exclusively about the contributions of white men. An opportunity arises when a contest is announced. Sam’s home of Staten Island is holding a contest to create a statue of a historically significant resident of the island. Believing Staten Island is devoid of queer history, they don’t want to do the project until Sam learns about Alice Austen.

Alice Austen was a real person, a photographer born & raised & who died on Staten Island. Austen’s break into photography was a pretty gender-defying feat. Beyond that, she was also in a long-term intimate relationship with another woman. While Austen never used the language we would today to describe her relationship, in our modern context, she was very clearly a lesbian or even possibly gender-fluid as much as she could, given the social stricture of Victorian society. Austen’s work has various recurring subjects; ships coming into New York was one, but she spent a lot of time photographing women, especially in states of intimacy together. It was never full-blown sex but women holding hands and embracing, imagery that would have evoked some strong emotions at the time.

This is a great book, especially for children already in supportive environments where expressing their gender identity has been something they do not have to worry about. They have parents, guardians, and family friends who are there for them. For children who may be closeted or hide their gender identity in their communities, I could see them enjoying this book. Still, I could also see it being “advanced.” I mean that in that Gino writes from a perspective of something very familiar with the language of gender and queerness and that many trans/nb kids who don’t have the support may also not have the language to talk about it at this level. There are a lot of acronyms that get explained once and then used repeatedly with a lot of comfort. I like that, but I wonder if a one-page glossary in the back would have been a good addition. Overall, I can’t think of a middle-grade novel I’ve read that so fully embraced queerness like this one. It makes me feel hope for the future.

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