Alice Austen Lived Here
Written by Alex Gino, published by Scholastic Press, 2022
Sam and their best friend TJ are both nonbinary seventh graders who are supported in their identities by their families. They live a block away from each other on Staten Island, which Sam describes as “the forgotten borough of New York City. Staten Island is nearly the size of Brooklyn, but with one-fifth the population.” While TJ and their family live in a house, Sam and their mom live on the fifth floor of an apartment building. Sam can see the Statue of Liberty from their bedroom window. When Sam and TJ are assigned a partner project for history class, to propose “a worthy historical figure” for a new statue that will be erected on Staten Island, they know they will choose someone queer. Most exciting, the history project is a contest for kids under the age of fifteen, and the winning entry will become a real statue on Staten Island . One problem is that entries require a letter of recommendation from a teacher, and Mr. Watras, their history teacher seems to believe that only Dead Straight Cisgender White Men (DSCWM) are responsible for history.
Sam’s downstairs neighbor friends, Jess and Val, also queer (Jess is femme lesbian and Val is nonbinary) suggest Alice Austen, a photographer from the late 1800s and early 1900s who was born on Staten Island in 1866 and lived most of her life there. While there wasn’t LBGTQ language at that time in history, Alice Austen had a loving female partner, Gertrude Tate, for her entire adult life. It turns out that Alice and Gertrude also lived for four years in the exact same apartment that Sam lives in now, 141 St. Mark’s Place, Apartment 5-C. Sam and TJ decide to visit Alice’s childhood home right on the water’s edge, now a museum called Clear Comfort, to learn more about Alice’s life and work. They learn:
Alice Austen took about eight thousand photographs during her life. That’s impressive when you remember that it was at a time when she had to carry fifty pounds of equipment with her and get the people in the pictures to stay still for seconds, even minutes, while the camera slowly captured the light patterns that made up the image. Plus, she had to develop each plate by hand in her darkroom. She carried her equipment all over Staten Island, and then all over Europe, taking photographs everywhere she could, but her favorite thing to shoot were the ships that passed right in front of her house, entering and leaving New York Harbor.
Sam and TJ have definitely found the perfect subject for their entry, but soon their project isn’t just about winning a contest. It’s about fighting for representation of a rich queer history that they are both part of.
In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, Alex Gino writes that they grew up on Staten Island and lived in the same apartment building that main character Sam, and that Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate lived in: 141 St. Mark’s Place. Alex Gino could see the Statue of Liberty outside their bedroom window, just as Sam does in this story. Alex Gino also shares that Alice Austen is real, and that she really was a lesbian. All the queer and trans history in this book is real. Many of Alice Austen’s original photographs are also reproduced and included at the end of the book too, including photos of Alice Austen and other women lovingly embracing other women, and women dressed as men. Alex Gino writes, “I want to thank and celebrate my queer chosen family, mentors, friends, and community – young and old; past, present, and future. We may not be related by blood, but we are connected by so much more. I would be lost without you. Sparkle on!”
Alex Gino is the author of the middle grade novels Rick, You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! and the Stonewall Award-winning Melissa, which was originally published as George. For more information, visit alexgino.com.
This book review was submitted by Stand with Trans board member Barb Shumer, who is a retired public librarian.
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