Book Review: Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex Gino

Title: Alice Austen Lived Here

Author: Alex Gino

Genre: Middle Grade Realistic Fiction

Number of Pages: 176

Rating: C

Recommended?: No

Ugh. This is absolutely a case where the cover art is 100% better than the actual book. I had my doubts about Alice Austen Lived Here right off the bat but I liked Melissa and hey, it was short. This novel has poor plot and character development and a ludicrously weak conflict and it’s so, so woke. Obnoxiously ‘scream into your ear until I get my point across’ woke. It has one goal; to send a message. Everything else is secondary.

Sam and TJ are non-binary pre-teens with loving and supportive families. Their teacher instructs all the kids in the class to write a paper on an influential historical figure. The student who writes the best paper will become a candidate to have the historical figure immortalized as a statue. TJ and Sam pick Alice Austen, a lesbian photographer who spent a period of her life living in what is now Sam’s apartment. Alice Austen sounds like an interesting person. The problem is that TJ and Sam’s interest in Alice Austen doesn’t seem to go much beyond ‘She’s queer! We’re queer!’ It’s infuriatingly shallow.

They just want to stop another ‘cis straight white male’ from becoming a statue, without looking deeper into Alice Austen’s life and legacy. TJ and Sam are close with a queer couple who lives next door to Sam’s apartment and end up also befriending an elderly lesbian neighbor. I actually found it really creepy that one of the queer neighbors, Jess, would undress in front of Sam, ostensibly to make them feel more comfortable with their own fat body. Imagine if a male character did that. There’s no universe where an adult ‘inviting’ a child to watch them undress isn’t problematic.

The ‘conflict’ consists of Sam getting worked up over Jess not claiming to be their ‘best friend.’ After some angst and refusing to talk to Jess because she hurt their feelings. Sam realizes that it’s okay that they and Jess aren’t best friends, she and her partner Val are their QUEER MENTORS. Mind blown. Then there’s a drama where Sam and TJ’s teacher doesn’t take to the Alice Austen statue idea, and they accuse him of ‘hating gay people.’

I would have preferred a story where the teacher is in the right and Sam and TJ are triggered Gen-Z whiners. Of course, there’s a climactic scene where TJ and Sam put the teacher in his place. The characters are all one-dimensional and if they weren’t LGBTQIA+ they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They’re almost entirely defined by their sexual and gender identities, which seems weird particularly in a book like this that supposedly celebrates the richness of LGBTQIA+ history and experience.

It feels like Alex Gino isn’t even trying. I don’t know if I want to read Rick and You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P.!, especially since I started Rick at one point and didn’t warm up to it. People say their work (after Melissa) tends to be didactic and that’s certainly apparent here.

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