Cover of Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills. Stylized headphones and cityscape

About the Book

Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Published: 2012

Cover Story: 1980s Music Video Show
Drinking Buddy: Hell, Yeah
Testosterone Level: Eleven
Talky Talk: Awkward Age
Bonus Factors: LGBTQ, Music Nerds
Bromance Status: Non Ironic

Cover Story: 1980s Music Video Show

It kind of has a totally 80s video countdown vibe to it, which goes well with the theme.

The Deal:

Gabe has everything a high school senior could want: his own late night radio show (Beautiful Music For Ugly Children), a great old DJ mentor, a job at an awesome record store, and a growing internet following. Even better, Paige, his best friend since childhood, has suddenly started showing an interest of a more romantical nature. So what’s wrong?

Well, it seems that for most of his life, people knew him as Elizabeth. While Gabe always knew that he was male, it wasn’t until this year that he told the world. Some people, like Paige and his mentor John, are understanding. Others, like Gabe’s parents, are not so accepting. And when Gabe’s radio show starts becoming popular, he’s suddenly worried about being publicly outed, something he’s not ready to do yet.

With advice from John, the DJ who claims to have been the first in the nation to play Elvis on the air, can Gabe make his radio dreams come true? Or will small-minded, violent people put an end to his plans?

Drinking Buddy: Hell, Yeah

Two pints of beer cheersing

Gabe was pretty awesome as he found his identity and became comfortable presenting as a male. The anonymity of the radio allows him to be himself, and his internet fans give him confidence.

John, however, was my favorite character. A guy who’s been spinning records since the fifties, he’s Gabe’s next door neighbor and shares his encyclopedic knowledge of music with his protege. He has a house filled with old records, 45s, CDs, MP3 files, and some weird things called ‘cassettes.’ True, he sometimes slips and calls Gabe by his old name and refers to him as a ‘triangle’ (transgender), but he stands by Gabe unflaggingly. Personally, I’d like to know more of his backstory.

Testosterone Level: Eleven

Gabe, who finds it difficult enough being a man with a vagina, is suddenly beset by female admirers. There’s Mara, a fan of the radio show. There’s Heather, a hot girl from school who thinks a guy like Gabe might be an interesting experience. But there’s always Paige, who finds herself conflicted by this handsome new guy in her life.

Unfortunately, when Gabe is outed to the public, he finds some people are hateful to guys like him. Soon a pair of psychos in Halloween masks are stalking him. They only shout insults…at first. Is living as his true self worth the risk?

Talky Talk: Awkward Age

Gabe is going through that glorious awkward time where a boy really has to decide who he is, where old friends become new romances, and a guy leaves the nest for the first time. It’s fun to be with Gabe as he celebrates his birth at the age of eighteen. Life is scarier for Gabe than most kids, but you get the impression that once he hits adulthood, a lot of good things are in store.

Bonus Factor: LGBTQ

Pride flag being waved in a parade

So North Carolina, as well as several other states, have recently passed laws that target the LGBTQ community, transgender people in particular. Under the new rules, it would be a crime for anyone to use a public restroom for the gender not listed on their birth certificate. People who have lived as men for years would have to use the women’s room, and vice versa.

For transgender people, this means they risk arrest or assault for something as simple as peeing. And if arrested, they could be incarcerated in the wrong gender facility. Things are changing, but not always in the right direction.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children does a great job of showing the nuts and bolts difficulties of a young trans man. He has to buy a product called a ‘mango’ (man-go) in order to be able to pee standing up. He avoids old classmates for fear of being recognized. Paige watches as her gangly old friend grows into a handsome young man, causing a lot of unexpected feelings. Gabe recalls how when he first got his period, he nearly tried to kill himself.

And when a couple of nut jobs with baseball bats start threatening Gabe and his family, the police are amused by the girl acting like a boy.

Being transgender is not the hopeless situation it once was, but for many, there are a lot of frustrations and dangers.

Bonus Factor: Music Nerds

A record store sketch from Kids in the Hall

Now when I realized Gabe and John were so into music, I expected a lot of ‘It’s an obscure band, you’ve probably never heard of it.’ Nope, Gabe and his friends are open to any all musicians. Gabe opens each chapter comparing someone to Elvis and makes his radio show a celebration of all genres. When someone is unfortunate enough to like something truly awful, such as Justin Bieber, Gabe reacts with pity and a desire to educate, not humiliate.

In one particularly funny scene, the owner of the music store where Gabe has been hired threatens to throw him out when he sees his application. Not because Gabe was forced to list his name as Elizabeth, but because he put Britney Spears as one of his favorite musicians.

Bromance Status: Non Ironic

Even though I’ve totally been into books about transgender people for  years, I have to admit that you’re a new classic. Stay cool, and don’t go corporate.

Full disclosure: I received no money or beard conditioner for this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.