HomeParenting2 New Middle Grade Novels Celebrate Queer History and Community
2 New Middle Grade Novels Celebrate Queer History and Community
June 7, 2022
Two new middle-grade novels, one by the lauded Alex Gino and one by debut author Michael Leali, focus on queer youth exploring queer history within the context of queer communities. These joyous, empowering, inspirational books are great reads for Pride or any time of year!
Despite both books having similar themes of finding queer history, acknowledging intersectionality, and showing queer youth in community, these are each very different stories, testifying to the richness of those themes. They’re set in different locations, with characters of different queer identities, and delve into different parts of queer history. It’s well worth reading both (or if you’re a librarian or teacher, having both in your library or classroom)!
Here are short summaries of each book; please click through for my full reviews!
Alice Austen Lived Here, by Alex Gino (Scholastic). Seventh-grader Sam lives on Staten Island, “a place known for ways to leave it.” Both Sam and their best friend, TJ, are nonbinary. As Sam explains, though, they’re not best friends because they’re nonbinary; it’s just one of many things they have in common. When their history class is asked to write about a famous Staten Islander, the teacher says the students should see themselves in their subject in some way. Sam and TJ, paired for the assignment, refuse to choose a straight, cisgender, White man. But are there any queer Staten Islanders of note? And could their essay take top marks and be entered into a contest to decide a new statue for Borough Hall? An older nonbinary neighbor suggests they look into Alice Austen, a 19th/early 20th-century local photographer and a lesbian. When Sam and TJ’s project misses getting entered into the contest because of what they suspect is their teacher’s bias, however, they don’t want to give up on Alice. Her life is more than just an essay topic to them. It’s representation and validation. With the help of a growing, queer, chosen family, might they have a second chance?
Along the way, Gino slips in information about queer history more broadly, the changing language around LGBTQ identities, and intersectional identities and oppression. Most importantly, though, they show the importance of historical queer role models, contemporary queer mentors, and queer community to queer youth today, all through engaging characters and a dynamic storyline. While Gino doesn’t shy away from discussing the struggles queer and other marginalized people have faced, they nevertheless weave a positive story with a vision of joy, community, and hope. This is an absolutely uplifting book that balances queer history with a celebration of intergenerational queer connections. Add this one to your reading list now, or get it for the young people you know.
The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, by Michael Leali (HarperCollins). Thirteen-year-old Amos Abernathy loves being a 19th-century historical reenactor at the Living History Park in Illinois where his mom works. Things change, though, when a new volunteer named Ben arrives. Amos has been out as gay since fourth grade, and he’s part of his school’s Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA), but he’s never had a crush before. A conversation with Ben also leads Amos to realize that he’d always reenacted as if he was straight. He becomes determined to find queer people who lived in the 19th century.
He turns to the Internet, and discovers Albert D. J. Cashier, a Civil War soldier who was assigned female at birth but fought for the Union Army as a man. Amos convinces other youth reenactors to help him with a proposal for a new exhibit on Cashier and other 19th century LGBTQ people they’ve found. Ben, however, whose family goes to an anti-LGBTQ church in their town, has stopped volunteering and not spoken with Amos in months. Amidst his confusion over Ben, Amos and his friends must face conservative minds on the museum board and a bullying girl reenactor whose father is a major funder of the museum. When it looks like things are turning against them, will a daring plan (and some help from the GSA) succeed?
The story is told in two alternating sections: letters Amos writes to Albert starting in the summer of 2021 as a way of processing his feelings; and a straightforward first-person narrative covering one day in the summer of 2022 as Amos and his friends’ plans for creating change reach a crucial moment. A secondary plot involves Amos’ best friend Chloe, who wants to portray “a free Black woman blacksmith” at the park. Leali makes Amos a likeable and perceptive protagonist with a passion for the past and a keen eye for observation. History fans should love it, and even those who aren’t (yet) might come to better understand why acknowledging the fullness of our past matters so much for our present.
I’ll also give a mention here to Different Kinds of Fruit, by Kyle Lukoff (Dial), which came out in April. It’s not rooted in real history like the two novels above, but like them, it gives us a middle-grade novel with a vision of queer community and intergenerational connections. If this is the new trend in queer middle-grade literature, I am here for it! Add them all to your reading list!