Beautiful Music for Ugly Children explores an issue that I have rarely come across in young adult fiction: the transition of a trangender young adult from female to male. Most of the books I’ve read dealing with transgender have strayed from this particular angle, instead opting to uncover the problems faced during the male-to-female transition. For this alone, I applaud Cronn-Mills, who managed to address some pivotal, hard-hitting emotional issues with dignity and subtlety. Rather than retread the tired and expected avenues of angst and confusion, Cronn-Mills instead delivers her story through the voice of a remarkably well-adjusted and eminently likeable narrator. Even while reading stories from the most gifted of writers in the young adult genre, I rarely am able to dissociate myself completely from the experience of reading a book. No matter how honest and genuine a narrator’s voice might be, I am usually nevertheless aware of the fact that the character is a work of fiction, a figment of the author’s imaginings. The ability to make your writing transcend the confines of the page is the hallmark of a great author, and in this I must give credit where it is due. Gabe easily could have come across as rather pretentious, (self-conscious chapter headings paramount in creating the possibility), yet Cronn-Mills conveys Gabe’s voice so simply and unaffectedly that I never doubted his authenticity. He is sympathetic when the situation calls for it (which is throughout most of the story) and witty in a way that you could expect from an actual high-schooler (rather than a thirty-something author channeling her own voice through her youthful character). Gabe is one of the few young adult narrators I’ve come across who I would be glad to call my friend, and so it was difficult to accept the fact that Cronn-Mills again took the road less traveled in the progression of Gabe’s story, because while it might have served as a realistic conclusion (in the sense that it isn’t really a conclusion at all), I would have liked to see Gabe get a little extra payoff at the end.
I’m fascinated by issues of gender and sexuality; in this day and age, where gender identity is such a fluid thing, I can’t help but be a tad disappointed that more authors haven’t taken the initiative to address the topic. Particularly for young adult audiences, a large portion of whom are at a juncture in their lives where exploration of these issues in fiction could serve as a guidepost for questions regarding their own identities, the relative lack of LGTB fiction in mainstream markets is unfortunate. So when I first read the synopsis for Cronn-Mill’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, I knew I had to get my hands on it as quickly as possible.
Unlike so many young adult books nowadays, the secondary characters in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children were wonderfully three-dimensional and, shockingly, didn’t broadcast their intentions, so I was as on the fence as Gabe most of the time. Some characters who likely would have played the villain in another story remained delightfully ambiguous, whereas others never achieved the self-actualization that would have allowed for a more complete resolution. We are left hanging because the characters don’t have all their issues together by the end, and it’s messy, but it’s also much more indicative of real life than the gift-wrapped happy endings that fiction so often delivers.
Ultimately, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a true coming-of-age tale in that the story doesn’t reside in the conclusion to Gabe’s high school career or even in the start to his future, but rather in the journey he is forced to take along the path to adulthood. It’s heartwearming without being saccharine, and will likely be an important book for many young readers who are lucky enough to stumble upon it. I eagerly await the next story Cronn-Mills chooses to tell, and hope that she continues to push the bounds of young adult fiction into areas that dearly need to be explored.