By Mary L. Fahrenbruck, Leanna Lucero and Tabitha P. Collins
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is the story of Gabe, who has been living as Elizabeth, but has known for some time that he is Gabe and must figure out a way to show himself to the world. Through his job at a local radio station, and with the support of his friend and neighbor, John, Gabe is able to experiment with sharing his identity during his late-night radio show. Unfortunately, people eventually begin to make the connections between Gabe and Elizabeth, and when things take a turn for the worst, Gabe must make some difficult decisions. Using humor and a wide range of musical references, Cronn-Mills addresses the delicate subject of an often ignored population in a way that is authentic and engaging.
We began our conversation with praise for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children and a discussion about the realistic elements of the story:
MARY, TABITHA, and LEANNA (all talking): Loved it! Loved this book! Really great story!
TABITHA: I think it’s a pretty realistic portrayal.
MARY: Do you think it’s realistic? Or are the other books (I am J and Luna) realistic?
TABITHA: It’s like what I was saying about the last two books; I think it is completely realistic for some people. Beautiful Music reminds me of at least two of my friends’ experiences. One friend’s family, even though it’s been a few years, still struggles and occasionally misgenders him, but they make an effort to be good, supportive parents. And his friends try really hard, too. I think that there are people who are lucky enough to have that.
MARY: This book seems much more holistic, looking at a person as a person rather than looking at a person as a gender.
TABITHA: I would say so, too. And I think that Gabe’s experiences are pretty realistic, too. Like working at the radio station. High school students do this; they work at radio stations. And then Gabe gets a following, which seemed a little on the fictional side, but that could happen.
MARY: Sure, it happens. Like people on YouTube.
TABITHA: Right! It may have felt more realistic to me if it was YouTube. But I think that the story is honest, even the horrible things that happen are honest. It’s not like Gabe has a perfect life with a supportive family, blah, blah, blah. No, he has this encounter with people from school who are mean to him. I think that’s pretty real. Even if you have a support network of people who care, you’re still going to encounter mean people.
LEANNA: I thought radio was good, though. Gabe is able to be Gabe when he is working because he talks to an invisible audience, and that gives him the confidence to be who he is. I think I liked him most when he was on the air.
MARY: Yes, there wasn’t a struggle. And I also liked that Gabe didn’t win the contest. I liked that he didn’t win and he had to make a plan, because life doesn’t always go smoothly.
LEANNA: And John lived in the end, but he wasn’t well. He wasn’t back to normal. I liked that it wasn’t all happy at the end.
TABITHA: There was no bow! We don’t like the nice little bow on top at the end.
Next, we discussed the possibilities of Time and Time Away as a story pattern in Beautiful Music just as we had discussed this possibility in I am J and Luna in our previous My Take/Your Take conversations.
MARY: Okay, this book had Time as a story pattern, but it didn’t have Time Away. What do you think about that?
TABITHA: I don’t think Gabe needed time away.
LEANNA: Isn’t he going away in the end?
TABITHA: He’s going to college, right?
MARY: He’s going to junior college in his home town, so not quite “away.”
TABITHA: I think that Luna and J needed time away. They needed time away more than Gabe does, because their families weren’t as accepting as Gabe’s family. I don’t think that Gabe’s family is perfect by any means, but they seemed more inclined to try.
MARY: I’m not sure that the dad was in a trying mood…
LEANNA: Well, he did introduce Gabe as his son at the end, right?
MARY: Oh, that’s right!
TABITHA: I think the dad needed more time, but I think Gabe has a lot more support than Luna or J did. With those supports in place, Gabe didn’t necessarily feel like he had to leave. Luna said that she felt like she had to leave. It seemed that J felt like he had to leave originally, but then he came back and stayed with his friend for a while. That’s probably why Beautiful Music doesn’t have Time Away. I don’t think that Gabe needs it as much.
LEANNA: Do you think that Gabe did spend time away, though? He seemed very independent and most of his time was spent next door at John’s house, or work, or the radio station, or school. So maybe Gabe was away?
MARY: I thought that was a typical teenager thing, though.
TABITHA: Right, but Luna and J don’t have that much going on. They don’t have friends really.
LEANNA: They don’t have outlets.
TABITHA: Right, and Gabe has all these things that he does. He doesn’t let the fact that he’s struggling with his gender identity put him in a box and keep him away from his life. He doesn’t let it make him stop living. In a way J and Luna both kind of put their lives on hold while they were trying to figure out their gender identity and what to do, while Gabe is like, “No… I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”
LEANNA: Yes, and take risks at the same time. And if it didn’t work out, then, oh well.
TABITHA: Yeah, but small risks. Not like J and Luna, who had to take huge risks. Which is what I think makes Beautiful Music seem so much more realistic because who doesn’t take small risks in their lives? And I think all of Gabe’s small risks led up to his situation being a lot better than J and Luna’s situations.
We also discussed the supportive role school plays in the lives of transgender youth. Tabitha talked about the Safe Schools Initiative during our discussion.
MARY: I’m not sure that school was supportive in this book, either.
TABITHA & LEANNA: No.
TABITHA: I don’t think school is supportive in any of the books that I’ve read with LGBT characters.
MARY: That’s so interesting.
LEANNA: It’s not surprising, though. There’s so much bullying that takes place in schools, so I’m not surprised that they’re not supportive. Because in reality, I don’t think that they are.
MARY: No, but isn’t there this push or this move to make schools safer places for LGBT students?
TABITHA: The Safe Schools Initiative is a huge deal, but you can make the environment safe. You can create designated spaces to help people feel safe. But you can’t make the other students be safe.
MARY: That’s true.
TABITHA: That’s the problem I have. While I support the Safe Schools Initiative and I think it’s great that they’re trying to educate teachers, I think one of the biggest problems is the other students. And what good is it doing LGBT students if we’re like, “Oh you’re struggling so just go to this room and you’ll be safe…”
LEANNA: And we have to mark our rooms with the triangle and the rainbow saying this is a safe zone and this is not.
TABITHA: Exactly, and so I have a problem with the “safe spaces” thing because of that.
MARY: Because every space should be safe.
TABITHA: Yeah and maybe we don’t necessarily need safe spaces that segregate, maybe we need brave spaces that integrate? Just people who are willing to be themselves in the world and show others by example that it’s okay to be different?
MARY: And I don’t think it’s people perceived as different that have problems. It’s the people that can’t handle those who are perceived as different. Those are the people we should be educating and working with.
TABITHA: Yes! There was a study done about the immigrants and safe spaces. They were basically quarantined, but it doesn’t change anything. They’re eventually going to have to leave that room, and the underlying problem is the other people. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything in place to do anything about those other people.
LEANNA and MARY: Exactly.
Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Publisher: North Star Editions
Date Published: October 8, 2012
Winner of the 2014 Stonewall Award from the American Library Association and a silver medal winner of the 2014 IPPY Award (Independent Publisher Book Award)