A Review of Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
by REBECCA, October 29, 2012
Gabe: shy Elvis devotee and aspiring DJ for whom the end of high school and a new radio show provide a chance to be himself, instead of being stuck as Elizabeth, as he was in school
John: Gabe’s next door neighbor, music mentor, friend, and all-around awesome guy
Paige: Gabe’s super supportive best friend since childhood
As the blurb puts it, this story is about “the lives and loves of a teenage transboy music geek.” Gabe starts his radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children” under the mentorship of old-time DJ John, his first public(ish) identification as Gabe instead of Elizabeth. As Gabe sends his thoughts and his music out over the airwaves, a cluster of enthusiastic listeners begin paying homage to the show with impromptu art around town.
Gabe is a music-obsessed trans guy living in Minnesota, and Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is the story of Gabe coming into his identity at the end of high school. When I read the description of the book, I got really excited for what it might be, but was nervous about what it would be. Turns out, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is exactly the kind of book I was hoping it would be: a story about one of the many different ways to be a teenager coming into his own.
Cronn-Mills has written a story that any music nerd will identify with—indeed, the music was my favorite element of the book. The most influential person in Gabe’s life is his neighbor and mentor, John, who was the first person to play Elvis on the radio, but Gabe is nervous to come out as trans to John. Gabe talks to Elvis in his head, almost as if by confiding his fears and hopes to Elvis, he’s confiding them to John by proxy. John and Gabe’s relationship is, for me, the central relationship of Beautiful Music, even though he calls Paige his best friend. John is not only a music mentor for Gabe, he’s also in some ways a model for he kind of man that Gabe wants to be. While Gabe has told his parents that he wants to be called Gabe, they still ignore him and have pulled away, so Gabe’s fear of losing John in the same way looms large for Gabe.
Beautiful Music For Ugly Children (I keep typing out the whole title because I love it so much) is breezily-written, full of music references and humor, and it’s fast-paced, despite not being an action-packed story. And it was this style that made the emotional resonance of the book really pop for me:
“My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life. I wish I’d been born a vampire or a werewolf instead, or with a big red clown nose permanently stuck to my face, because that stuff would be easy. Having a brain that doesn’t agree with your body is a much bigger pain in the ass. . . . Honestly, world, I don’t care what you think. Stick your issue up your ass.
Big talk, huh? I really don’t have much to bitch about. My parents love me—at least they used to, up until this last announcement—and nobody’s ever beat me up. But I also stopped trying to make people believe in me a long time ago. It was easier to hold it all in. But that’s almost over now. I can almost breathe” (8)
Now, by the end of the book, people have tried to beat Gabe up, and he has begun trying to make people believe in him. And, as you might expect, they go together.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
We love Pump Up the Volume here at Crunchings & Munchings, and Gabe’s radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children” (based on the comics Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, by Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman) had a definite “Talk Hard” feeling to it that I really enjoyed. During a show dedicated to less-played B sides of popular records, Gabe, finally opening up to John’s imperative to talk, says:
“So, tell me, listeners . . . are you an A side or a B side? Are you a Top Forty hit, or an equally good yet potentially undiscovered gem?” “Then again, I think all of us have our A and B sides, even though digital music kind of wrecked that idea. . . . What about you—more A side or B side? Write it down somewhere, chalk it on the street. ‘I’m Ed, and I’m a B side!’ or ‘I’m Martha, and I’m an A side!’” (41-2).
Not long after, on the side of an abandoned warehouse, listener chalk “MITCH’S A SIDE = MITCH. MITCH’S B SIDE = SATAN!” and “BE RADICAL—CLAIM YOUR GROOVE” as Gabe instructed. And, just like that, the UGLY CHILDREN BRIGADE is born. Gabe’s show is important to people, and as his fans show themselves to be dedicated to carrying out his whimsical instructions, Gabe realizes that people do believe in him. With this new-found attention, however, comes scrutiny, and soon Gabe faces threats and violence.
For me, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children succeeds as a coming of age story, particularly as it regards Gabe’s relationships with music and with John. But it is also important in that it isn’t just a story about being trans—it’s one that walks the difficult (and important, I think, in young adult fiction) line between fully inhabiting the fears and joys and challenges that are, for Gabe, specific to being trans, while still being explanatory enough about some things that Gabe’s story can be useful for folks who might be looking for information. That is, Cronn-Mills seems to assume that she is writing for a wide audience, and takes into account their differing needs.
There have been a hearteningly increasing number of YA books featuring trans characters in the last couple of years (check HERE and HERE for lists), but one of the things that I really appreciate about Cronn-Mills is that she has openly addressed the difficulty that some people have with her as a non-trans woman writing a book from the perspective of a trans teen. Indeed, she has openly addressed her own anxieties about the writing process, during which she questioned herself and discussed why, ultimately, she thought Beautiful Music was an important book for her to write. I feel like I’ve been talking about it a lot lately, but it seems more dire than ever that we, the YA literature community, really claim our own difficulties, desires, anxieties, and miss-steps.
Above all, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is a story about the passions and people that help us get through the day, and about the things we sometimes sacrifice in the process of being ourselves. Treat yourself to Cronn-Mills’ playlists for all the songs mentioned in the book while you check it out.
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (2006). Dessen really gets the power of not just music, but radio. Owen uses his radio show as a way to communicate, and to feel like he is making his little corner of the world more beautiful. His show helps Annabel discover that she, too, wants to be in control of her world. A really delightful read, even for those who don’t think of themselves as being part of the Dessen crowd. You can check out my full review HERE.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). A book about the power of art to bring people together despite their differences, by turns funny and poignant. Check out our 3-part joint review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. Check out my full review HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, with no compensation on either side. Thanks, NetGalley! Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is available now.