By Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Published on October 8, 2012
Published by: Flux
Published by: Flux
I am always anxious when reading "issues" books that have anything to do with gender, sexuality, or mental illness. They're issues which are close to me personally and which I feel are really important to get right. Getting them wrong is a disservice to readers in general, and to people who may identify with those characters in specific. So I was understandably a bit nervous when beginning Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. YA books featuring transgender narrators (or trans characters in general) are few and far between, and the story was handled well, it could be beautiful, but if it was handled poorly, I would have had to drag out the soapbox for a lot of complaining."This is Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, on community radio 90.3, KZUK. I'm Gabe. Welcome to my show."
My birth name is Elizabeth, but I'm a guy. Gabe. 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.
When you think about it, I'm like a record. Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side--not heard as often, but just as good.
It's time to let my B side play.
Fortunately, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children handles Gabe's story quite well. It's not a perfect story, but it is told in a sensitive, realistic manner. The book is written as if Gabe is partly speaking to the reader, and his story is told in a no-nonsense, no-fuss sort of way. Gabe's feelings about being trans, about having been born into the wrong body, are presented in an easy to understand manner, even for readers who may not have any exposure to the subject matter before.
The story follows Gabe as he begins a volunteer stint at a local community radio station, a gig he got thanks to his music fiend of a neighbor, John. Gabe is navigating the usual perils of being a teenager, with the added complication of not being "out" as Gabe at school, only to his family and his best friend Paige. Paige has been understanding and supportive, but Gabe's family struggles with accepting him as he is. At school, Gabe, still going by his birth name of Liz, is bullied for being different. Gabe's radio show is the only place he can be himself - but things get complicated whenever Gabe starts to get female admirers in a town where only a few people know his true self.
I enjoyed reading about Gabe's journey -- well, enjoyed is a strong word, whenever so much of his life goes awry because people don't understand him, but you know what I mean. He is a cool guy who just needs people to accept him as he is. As a radio DJ myself, I really loved the bits where Gabe is learning to do his show. Gabe has a couple of "oh crap!!" moments that every new DJ has which I could really identify with. Music was a really important part of the story, and Gabe's eclectic music tastes really made me happy.
Like most contemporary issues books, I found the ending to be a bit too easy -- things wrapped up very neatly, bad people are punished, good people are celebrated, etc. That's now how life usually is, however, especially for a transperson, who is statistically more likely to experience bullying, harassment, and assault and is more likely to have attempted suicide. So the fact that things just all end on a relatively positive note is great for providing hope to readers, but is not particularly realistic in light of the situation.
I would recommend this book to anyone curious about the issues a trans teen would face, or who is struggling with his/her own gender identity, simply to read a book which features someone like them as a main character -- not a bad guy, not an object of scorn or ridicule, but someone who just wants to be free to be himself. It's a good book to start conversations with. This book uses frequent strong language (both cursing and of a more sexual nature) and has many scenes which involve bullying, a flashback to an attempted suicide, and assault.