Friday, July 25, 2014

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirsten Cronn-Mills
Publisher: Flux
Year: 2012
Pages: 262
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  LGBT, Identity, Acceptance
Age Range: 8th Grade and Up

Gabe loves music, being on the radio, and his best friend, Paige.  Gabe also, until recently, was a girl named Elizabeth.  At least, Gabe was born biologically female, and his parents raised him in the female gender.  As far as Gabe is concerned, he has always been a boy.  But his decision to start living his day to day life that way is new, and it is throwing his family for a loop.  The only people who seem to truly accept the new/old him is his best friend Paige, and his elderly neighbor John, himself a radio devotee.  Gabe gets his own late-night radio show on the local channel, which he calls Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.  Radio allows him to be fully himself in a way he can't be at school or at home.  But things get complicated when one of his fans discovers his secret, and Gabe is forced to confront the very real danger that trans* folks face from people who refuse to accept their identity.

I loved this book, in large part because I know a few young adults who could have been Gabe.  As a part of the queer community myself, and someone who works with teenagers on a regular basis, the prejudice, discrimination, and violence that trans* folks deal with is something that I am more familiar with than I would like.  I think that it speaks to Cronn-Mill's ability to write a fully-realized character that I was so readily able to identify with Gabe, if not through my own identity, then through the sharing of trans* youth I have worked with over the years.

Not that I have anything against issue driven stories, but ultimately this book is not "just" a book about being trans*.  The reader gains some insight into the experience of trans* folks, but Cronn-Mills does an excellent job showing just how universal the issues that Gabe deals with are in adolescence, even if Gabe has a harder row to hoe than most.  The teenage years are all about separating from parents, creating identity, and navigating increasingly sophisticated social structures.  Many youth struggle to find balance and meaning between the person they have always been, and the person they would like to become.  Gabe's transition from being Elizabeth is a more dramatic example of something that all of us go through.  Instead of diluting the issues surrounding being trans*, though, this universality may help the reader create connections with characters that are otherwise seemingly very different, which can only help create empathy for people in Gabe's position, and for anyone who is identified as "other"

I think that this book would be a great addition to any classroom library at the secondary level.  I also could see it being taught in a human sexuality class, or as part of a course on social justice topics.  Beautiful Music for Ugly Children won the Stonewall Award from the American Library Association, given to books for young adults that show excellence in portraying LGBT themes, an award that in this case is well-deserved.

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