Gabe was born as Elizabeth, but he’s always known that he’s a boy. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children sets out to be a bold book, by an author who definitely doesn’t shy away from tough topics like transgender kids. And although there is no doubt whatsoever that this topic – or Issue, for lack of a better word – is incredibly relevant in contemporary (high) school life, a book is not (or should not be) just “about an issue” and unfortunately that is exactly what’s wrong with Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.
The main culprit for that is firstly the clear intention of Cronn-Mills to educate her audience. Proof of that is also for instance the author’s note at the end of the book explaining the whole spectrum of transgenderism. Interesting to know, yes, but it gives away that Cronn-Mills is more interested in educating her audience than really grabbing a reader with unique characters and a great story.
This is even enhanced by the disjointed writing. Gabe’s narration feels forced somehow. There’s very little that made the cat really care for Gabe as a character. Sure, the things happening to him are singular, sure it’s a disgrace that there’s so much misunderstanding and hatred out there against transgenders, resulting in bullying and even physical violence. But the feeling you get is that it’s something “the reader absolutely has to sympathize with because it’s a bad thing that is happening to transgenders”, rather than that “it’s goddamn awful that Gabe who’s such a great person has to suffer all of this. I mean, come on people!”. What I want to say is that there’s a whole river between what the author wants me to feel about the main character and what the cat actually feels about the main character.
On top of that (and it’s a result of the mediocre writing) the problems that Gabe encounters (relationship issues, bullying, the problems his parents experience because of his transgenderism, the radio show, etc.) all feel like “And first this. Then this. Then that…” . There really isn’t any natural flow to the story. The tensions between Gabe and his parents, for instance. Gabe tells us that his parents find it difficult to accept who he is, but there’s very little interaction between Gabe and his parents for the reader to believe that… Also, when there actually is interaction, they keep on calling Gabe Liz, and Gabe doesn’t call them on it (I think he only does that once). Secondly, the DJ contest. Gabe is a self-proclaimed music nut. However, why does he connect with the songs on his show? The DJ contest itself is also glossed over in a mere paragraph or two, and never did Gabe discuss the relevance of the songs he chose. The main highlight of the music angle of the book were the chapter titles (all outlaying who was the new Elvis and why…).
Seriously, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is probably an important book because of its topic. I’m sure lots of transgender kids will relate to or at least recognize what Gabe goes through. But as a piece of writing, a published book, it doesn’t really hold up, never transcending the label of LGBT or Issues book, which is a total pity. Other authors, like David Levithan or Emily M. Danforth prove that such a thing really is possible.