Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Because of my new job, I’ve found myself reading more teen fiction, middle grade fiction, and picture books, to the point that I’m considering splitting Infinite Reads into two blogs: original Infinite Reads, where I can make crude penis jokes, and a PG-13 version where I can talk about books for youth without a) cluttering IR for adults who don’t give a crap about the latest Skippy-Jon Jones (no, that wasn’t a penis joke, you sickos) or b) worrying that parents reading my talking about youth books are going to freak out about my crude penis jokes. Which, let’s face it, crude penis jokes are awesome, but not everyone is awesome enough to think so.

Penis. Hee hee.

Moving along.

Speaking of penises, this read focuses heavily on the lead character’s lack of one and occasionally on the attempt to procure a substitute. Say hello to the latest in transgender YA fiction:

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children cover artBeautiful Music for Ugly Children

by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Flux, $9.99 trade, 978-0738732510, October 8, 2012

Gabe has always identified as a boy, but he was born with a girl’s body. With his new public access radio show gaining in popularity, Gabe struggles with romance, friendships, and parents–all while trying to come out as transgendered. An audition for a station in Minneapolis looks like his ticket to a better life in the big city. But his entire future is threatened when several violent guys find out Gabe the popular DJ is also Elizabeth from school.

Gabe’s life sucks. When you’re a boy living in a girl’s body and getting constantly tormented at school by people who call you “the It Girl,” life tends to do that, especially when your parents can’t understand your transgenderness and won’t agree to stop calling you Elizabeth. At least Gabe has two great friends on his side: John, his old-but-cool neighbor who got Gabe a gig DJing a late night radio hour, and Paige, his long-time BFF.

With his radio show making an enormous splash among local teens, Gabe feels like a new man. He’s still got a few glitches in the being-a-man system, like having to learn how to wear a prosthetic penis so he won’t have to use the ladies’ room at clubs. Also, the friendship dynamic with Paige has changed since Gabe told her he no longer wants to live as Elizabeth, especially since Gabe has a raging crush on Paige. However, with a brigade of fans performing harmless pranks in the name of Gabe’s show, an audition for a major radio station coming up, and the hottest girl in school suddenly very interested in hanging out, life definitely seems to be improving.

Unfortunately, Gabe’s starring in a YA novel about transgender issues, so his happiness quickly derails. Death threats and cyberbullying ensue, as well as physical threats to Gabe and his friends.

I’m generally not into YA fiction about the gay/transgender experience for one reason: bad crap happens to the hero or heroine. I swear, these two subsections of YA protagonists go through roughly the same level of psychological and physical damage as Katniss in The Hunger Games, and I get queasy about it. I get that authors are trying to explore the issues faced by teens with these orientations, but sometimes it feels like gratuitous hate crimes. Anyway, while Gabe and friends go through the wringer, I still enjoyed this quirky book. Gabe is a major music nerd, and his playlists integrate heavily into the story and give his character extra depth. I also loved the “(Person’s name) is the new Elvis because (reason)” chapter headings, which were clever enough that they didn’t seem smug about their own offbeat overtones.

All in all, an often-sweet, sympathetic look at a talented protagonist who only wants to live his life without getting persecuted for his identity. Practical issues of transitioning come up several times, and teens might come away with some great new (to them) tunes.

Rock on, Gabe!