I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex Gino. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Alice Austen Lived Here, best friends Sam and TJ are assigned a project in class: to research and write an essay about a person from history that lived in their area, Staten Island, who deserves to be the model for a statue to be erected in the city. In working on this assignment, they learn about Alice Austen, who was a photographer and also lived for many years with a female partner. Both kids are astonished to learn this, having never really thought that queer people were able to live authentically in the past, or even that they really existed at all. But through this project and their conversations with the people in Sam’s apartment, their world is expanded.
I didn’t mean to summarize basically the entire plot in the above paragraph, but oh well.
This is a sweet story! It’s really brief; I’d almost call it a short story, not even a novella, even for middle grade standards. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad!
Sam and TJ are sweet kids with an endearing friendship. I also really liked Jess and Val, Sam’s neighbors, who serve as older siblings/mentors. The idea of chosen family, especially for people who tend to be marginalized in overall society, is so important, and it was nice to see this depiction.
I also liked seeing two nonbinary main characters with supportive friends and family. It is vital to show children that everyone deserves that sort of support, and that that sort of support is even possible, particularly these days. Looking at you, Texas, Idaho, and Florida legislators. And the exploration of how queer people lived in previous generations is fascinating. Also, look up Alice Austen’s photos, please, because they’re so cool.
There really isn’t much to this story beyond what I’ve described, but it’s great for representation, as well as education for people who don’t know much about nonbinary people, or about queer history. It’s also a declaration that queer people have always existed, and have even thrived despite everything, and that they will continue to do so. It’s also a book that will definitely wound the fragile egos of ignorant people who seek to invalidate and threaten this community, and thus I applaud this book. And no, I’m not really pulling my punches in this review and I will not apologize for that.
In the end, Alice Austen Lived Here is a funny, charming, earnest story about two young people finding a connection to history that they never imagined. It’s a love letter to Staten Island, and to the LGBTQ+ community of the past. It’s a short and simple story, but it’s genuine, heartwarming, and important.
Alice Austen Lived Here will be published on April 5th, 2022!