Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills

beautiful music for ugly childrenGabe might have been born Elizabeth but he’s knows that he’s truly a boy.  And now, after years of living as Elizabeth, he’s decided to start living as Gabe–outside his room.  His family still isn’t sure how to react to Gabe’s decision and his apparently supportive best friend Paige keeps sending him mixed signals.  But through his new gig as a DJ on the local radio, Gabe starts to find his voice, connect with a surprisingly large group of late night listeners, and walk the difficult path towards acceptance & survival.

Whew! What a fresh, authentic, and, yes, truly beautiful novel about finding the courage to stand up for yourself, to seek out your passions, and to pursue your dreams–even in the face of hatred and fear.

Cronn-Mills adds an exciting new voice to young adult fiction through her marvelous protagonist Gabe. He’s worried about transitioning from his past life as Elizabeth and he longs for the freedom to be himself (and for his best friend Paige to notice him as more than a friend).  However, somehow Gabe maintains a sense of humor as he tells his story–a fact that makes his emotional moments all the more powerful.  Gabe is sarcastic, vulnerable, shy, funny, passionate, and caring; his love of music, his dreams of becoming a DJ, and his close, complicated relationships with his best friend Paige, his neighbor and mentor John, and his family all make him an incredibly appealing, relatable character.

This tender and thoughtful coming of age story explores Gabe’s senior year, describing  both simple (and not so simple) everyday incidents and well-placed moments of intense action & nail-biting tension.   While certain events might be a little too serendipitous and the conclusion a bit too quick, the plot overall is well paced and the story refreshingly combines the harsh realities faced by trans youth (including harassment, threats, physical attacks, etc.) with positive relationships & well-earned triumphant moments.  I love the way Cronn-Mills uses Gabe’s passion for DJ-ing and music to guide his journey and structure the story.   Additionally, as I’ve already indicated, the supporting cast of characters is first rate.  Between his conflicted but supportive best friend Paige, his cool, kind neighbor John, his quirky boss, his confused yet loving family, and the strange collective of fans that emerges from his radio show, every character add something important to the reader’s understanding of Gabe’s story–and of Gabe himself.

A welcome addition to a growing group of excellent novels focused on trans youth–especially because Gabe is fully fleshed out character, with passions and interests and problems beyond his identity as a young trans man.  Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is a lovely, quirky, and hopeful coming of age story that will appeal to anyone who’s ever felt trapped or invisible under the pressure of other people’s expectations.  The concluding author’s note featuring information about trans identity and resources for trans youth & their family and friends is a great bonus.

Readalikes:  This novel could be matched with readers via a few different routes.   It might be passed on to students expressing an interest in reading contemporary coming of age stories about LGBTQ teens (recent examples include The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd & Ask The Passengers by A.S. King). It could also be paired up with other stories about trans youth (such as I Am J by Cris Beam, Luna by Julie Anne Peters, Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, or Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher).  However, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children could also fit wonderfully with a collection of other quirky musical novels such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman, or The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour.

A strong 4/5 stars!

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