Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills.

“You know, life is just programmed chaos. Everybody starts out on one side—that’s the programmed part. But then chaos happens, and our album flips. We get fat or thin, or dye our hair and pierce our nose. But those are just our outsides. Our insides are still beautiful, even if we think we’re ugly children.”

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children popped up in my recommendations on Amazon after I purchased and devoured all of Adam Silvera’s work. On a whim, I purchased it without knowing much about it. When it came (with a few other titles), I was immediately drawn to the cover (I’m a sucker), but more importantly, the award. In 2014, it was awarded the Stonewall Book Award and I immediately placed the book on my nightstand to read.

I was not disappointed. At all. And while I do think there are some terms, etc throughout the book that date it (and are outdated in referring to the LGBTQ community), it was a fabulous look at the life of a transgendered teenager who is struggling with the transition and the impact it has on the people around him.

Gabe, born Elizabeth, has fought with acknowledging his true identity for years, but now that he is out to his parents and close friends, it’s time to be out in the real world. From asking his long time friend and mentor John to call him Gabe, to applying for work as Gabe (but having to put Elizabeth on the application), to confronting bullies, the book is full of struggles that Gabe has to face because of who he is.

But what I loved about the book was its authenticity in relationships. First, John. As a longtime friend and mentor who is quite a bit older than Gabe, Gabe was nervous to reveal his true identity. That moment and the resulting conversation made me smile for its authentic tone. I think that often we make assumptions about the older generation and what they do/don’t approve of/condone/support, and the conversation with John altered that for Gabe. John appeared to be more accepting and supportive than Gabe’s parents (who I will get to in a minute).

Paige, Gabe’s best friend, had an equally real relationship with her best friend. As kids, and as Elizabeth, the two shared a lot of memories. Gabe struggled throughout the book with his feelings for Paige (as more than friends), and how their relationship would change now that he was Gabe. I love that there were still moments of intense intimacy between them that true best friends would share. It wasn’t about supporting Gabe because he was now Gabe and going through this change, but because he was still the same person that Paige knew and loved, if that makes sense. Gabe wasn’t different than Elizabeth because Elizabeth was always Gabe. And Paige knew and understood that. That’s powerful.

That’s not to say there wasn’t tension and misunderstanding, because of course there was, but the strength of their friendship despite those challenges made me smile on more than one occasion.

And as for Gabe’s parents? In some reviews I’ve read online, the parents seem to be getting a bad rap for their turnaround, but I still see some of the reality within their struggles. At the beginning of the novel, it’s hard to see from Gabe’s perspective if his parents are truly supportive and understanding of his transition, but they seemingly switch. I see it as they are struggling until they see a much happier Gabe than they ever saw a happy Elizabeth. I think sensing that change shows that Gabe is who he really is and that this is how it is meant to be. I imagine it’s a difficult place to be-a parent of a child who is struggling with making the transition (I say this as someone without kids, but who has had students transition-parents seem to struggle, but once things have “clicked” for the student, it becomes easier for the parents-not trying to pass judgment-just some observations based on my own experiences).

Overall, the book tackled this sensitive topic with a lot of grace and far better than I expounded my thoughts here (I’m rusty on writing about books, and was intimidated to start with this one-I hope I did it justice). I do think I’m going to seek out some memoirs about transitions, as that seems to be a big critique (that a cisgendered individual wrote the book as opposed to reading a book about an actual human being). I’ll have to keep an eye out, but if you think of any recommendations, please let me know.

“Whoever you are, you're plenty.”


  1. This sounds like a really good book. I just placed it on hold at the library because of your review!

  2. I'm going to add this back to my list -- I had it on there pre-publication and then for a while, and then for some reason I took it off. It sounds good, though, and I have been adding more and more transgender literature into my reading (and trying to find more bisexual texts, too, because that is another identity that is wildly maligned, misunderstood, and under-represented). That said, I totally agree with you about reading transgender stories from transgender writers. There are some good ones out there written by cis folk, but there's something to be said for the first-hand, genuine experiences of authors who can really know what it is like.