Book Review: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Author: Kristin Cromm-Mills

Series: No

First Sentence: “If radio is the medium of the ugly person, then I can live my life as a voice and the world will be perfect.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 original vinyl records

This is the first book I completed for the YALSA Hub challenge.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it.

Not as much, I think, as other people liked it.

Which was a tiny bit disappointing because I was hoping this would be another I Am J situation where I felt ALL THE FEELINGS and was sure that my entire life changed. It wasn’t. I didn’t. It hadn’t. But I did enjoy Gabe’s snark, Paige’s spirit and John’s… everything. And I’m always ALWAYS pro stories that feature LGBTQIA folks, particularly TQIA because they get even less of the little coverage as the LGB’s. And I really like that Gabe is very matter of fact about his identity and not self-loathing and angsty like many teen coming out/transitioning stories. Not that one is not entitled to be angsty about coming out/transitioning or generally any reason at all when one is a teenager. But I can do without reliving that internal monologue.

That said there are a few things I loved in this book, several I liked a lot and one I didn’t like at all.

***WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING***

For starters, I love the metaphor Gabe spins about A sides and B sides of our personalities. For Gabe it’s a literal analogy. Liz- the name he was born with- is the A side, the side that has been playing most of his life, and Gabe is his B side- equally as awesome, just not played as often. I love this analogy because I feel like it applies to all of us. Gabe says later in the book that ‘maybe we all have A sides and B sides and C sides and R sides.’

And we do.

Take me for example. I’m a bitch I’m a lover I’m a child… no wait… that’s Meredith Brooks. But the point still stands. I’m not the same loudmouth dyke speaking to a table that I am in the kitchen bitching about them to my co-workers. I’m not the same snarky smart ass with the StoryTime moms that I am with my close friends. I don’t tell drunk stories to my mother, I don’t tell dirty jokes to my 5 year old nephew… at least not yet.

And that’s okay with me.

Not everyone gets every part of me.

But I also relate to the feeling of wanting to bring one of my sides up to the forefront, like Gabe wants to be his B side all the time. I did the whole closeted thing and it juuuuust didn’t work for me. I don’t have to spit rainbows every time I have a conversation at work, but I don’t lie about who I am. Gabe just wants to stop lying about who he is. And I totally support that.

I liked how authentic Gabe and his world is. How some people react to his transition with disgust and others with confusion and others don’t react at all. A few ignorant bigoted fucks from high school who physically threaten him. A girl who outs him on facebook (because we live in an age where facebook is so ubiquitous it appears as a plot device in novels which doesn’t at all make me feel old as I recall my high school and college life before facebook even existed). But it’s not all horrible reactions. The hottest girl in school wants to hook up with him. The competition he’s in the finals of changes his name with no problem. His mentor and best friend are fine with his transition, they support him and help him plan for the future.

I think it’s so important to include this range of reactions. So many of the early LGBTQ YA novels were horribly depressing. Everyone rejected the queer character and usually someone died. We’ve, thankfully, moved past that bleak reality, but at the same time we can’t ignore the pervasive violence that still threatens queer folks. In addition, it’s also important to give hope to the closeted teen who might be reading, and just to show the world that there are plenty of people who will accept transition without question and with love and support.

In line with that, I liked the way Gabe’s parents and brother were portrayed. Gabe’s brother’s knee-jerk reaction to Gabe wanting to talk about girls is to reject the conversation. But a few minutes later he tells Gabe that when they smile a lot, that’s how you know they like you. Gabe’s parents have a hard time with it and don’t always deal with it in a sensitive manner. They take a while to call him Gabe instead insisting on Liz. They take out their anger and confusion and guilt on him.

But they do come around. Gabe’s mom’s tearful declaration that “nothing you could do could make me not love you. Nothing!” had me in tears myself. By the end of the book his dad introduces him to a friend as Gabe. This, too, is important. It’s normal to want our parents reaction to our coming out to be overwhelming and unconditional support. It’s normal and its fair to want that. But our parents are also humans with their own emotions and baggage. They are still products of our culture and society. And it might take them a minute to process the myriad of emotions going on inside them. It took me 22 years to come out to myself, so maybe giving my parents a few months to get used to the idea wasn’t too much to ask after all.  (Not that I would have listened to that logic at the time, but I’ve mellowed a lot in the last 8 years. Really. I have.)

I loved Gabe’s friendship with John, his next door neighbor who introduces him to music and gets him playing on the radio. John who accepts Gabe’s transition with absolutely no fuss. John who physically protects Gabe when two guys come at him with baseball bats. John wasn’t perfect. No one in this book was perfect. But John was someone I wanted to go hang out with and talk about music with. I wanted to ask him if he liked Madonna or Cyndi Lauper better and who was his favorite Beatle. I was lucky enough to have a few adults in my life who played the role for me that John played for Gabe. I hope everyone does.

I liked Paige. I loved how she was a true friend, but had a little wobble. We all have wobbles. And after being physically threatened because your best friend is trans I think it’s understandable to have a wobble… to take a second to figure out what this means for you. Because we all experience life with ourselves at the center of it. I think many of us in the queer community have stories about the friend who made our coming out all about them. How their life was changed, how they were affected by it. We wanted to scream THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU while they were all OMG FEELINGS!! Because it wasn’t about them. Much.

Paige knows that her best friend transitioning is not about her, and she does a really good job of not making it about her. Until she get’s threatened at work, which I’m okay with because then it sort of is about her. She says honestly that the assholes said things to her that she didn’t want to believe but that got to her. About being rejected. About being isolated. And that’s scary. It’s okay that she got scared. What matters is that she stayed. What matters is that she realized that Gabe was more important than what other people could potentially think.

I also really liked the ending. When John defended Gabe from the two ass hats with baseball bats John was hit on the head and knocked into a coma. Gabe leaves his hospital bed to DJ the competition that is his ticket to a job in the Twin Cities. Gabe needs to win. He needs to move to the Cities and have a job to start saving for hormone therapy. He wants to win for John, who entered him in the first place. He wants to win for himself. He wants it so badly he can taste it.

And maybe if the timing hadn’t sucked so badly he would have won. But he’s distracted by the attack, by John being in the hospital, but the guilt of feeling like he’s putting his loved ones in danger. And so he sucked. And he doesn’t win.

I love that he doesn’t win. I love that the stars don’t align, that everything isn’t perfect just this one night. Because that’s not what happens. And I love when our protagonist, especially our 18 year old protagonist, doesn’t get everything. We know he’ll be okay. He’ll go to community college and maybe go on to spin professionally and maybe write about music in magazines. He’s 18—its okay for him not to have his whole life figured out yet.

The thing I didn’t like in this book was Gabe’s objectification of the girls around him. Seriously the only comments he ever makes about the girls in his life are about their looks. Even about Paige. He spends considerably more time talking about her pretty hair than anything else. And for being his best friend, we don’t know much about Paige except that she’s pretty and smart and his best friend. I get that it’s probably accurate. That teenage boys think with their dick. But some of the things Gabe says, if only in his inner monologue made me want to punch him.

“Paige is a brainless hoochie mamma when we club…” Paige. His best friend. And not ‘acts like,’ she is a brainless hoochie mamma. I don’t doubt that this is something that Gabe would probably think, but when we put it into books and present it as something that’s totally okay to think and say then we are saying its okay. We are saying that when girls dress how society tells them they have to dress in order to be considered desirable, it’s okay to call them a slut. That it’s okay to shame them. That it’s okay to say that women who are dressed provocatively are also stupid.

I’m not okay with this message.

“[Heather]’s a goddess: long flowing hair, lots of cleavage, and tight shorts. The imaginary words on her forehead are DO ME.” Gabe doesn’t say anything about Heather except how hot she is. Isn’t interested in anything but how hot she is. In the entire book the only thing we ever know about Heather is that she’s hot.

The idea that to be a teenage guy means all girls are sexual objects to be lusted after bothers me. I wonder if Gabe would have crushed so hard on Paige if she weren’t a total babe? That bothers me. I’m tired of the message we see all around us that pretty girls are the only ones deserving of love and attention. I’m fucking sick of it. And while I don’t doubt that it is an authentic and realistic side of Gabe, it isn’t one I liked at all.

So all in all a good book. A great portrayal of a trans* character, with a detailed explanation of the umbrella term ‘transgender’ and the many identities that exist under that umbrella as well as a list of resources for teens and adults.

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