30 January, 2023

LitStack Recs: Who Do You Love & Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Millsreck

Elizabeth Williams is your typical introverted high school nerd girl, looking forward to the freedom that graduation should bring.  Paige, her BFF since kindergarten, makes sure that she is not a complete wallflower, but Elizabeth still prefers listening to music – something she is passionate about.

Gabe Williams is also passionate about music.  So passionate, in fact, that he has volunteered to DJ the midnight to 1:00 am time slot at community radio station 90.3 KZUK in tiny Maxfield, Minnesota.  He calls his show “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children”, and it’s an eclectic mix of today’s music, older classics, one hit wonders, kitsch, glitz, glam, rock, punk, funk, pop, disco, country and always, Elvis.

But here’s the thing:  Elizabeth and Gabe are the same person.

My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy.  Gabe.  My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right.  I’ve been a boy my whole life.  I wish I’d been born a vampire or a werewolf instead, or with a big red clown nose permanently stuck to my face, because that stuff would be easy.  Having a brain that doesn’t agree with your body is a much bigger pain in the ass.

Ok, so Elizabeth isn’t all that typical after all.  But her struggle – his struggle – to be accepted is pretty universal.

Much of Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is about relationships, which are so critical to young people on the edge of adulthood.  Gabe has a loving, if bewildered, family, reluctant to let go of their idea of “how things should be”, and a best friend who is a rock in his stormy sea, well, most of the time.  And he has a neighbor – John, an older, honest-to-goodness former DJ – who is a mentor and friend; someone to whom Gabe’s identity comes in a distant second to their shared love of music.

Gabe is also surprised to find out that he has a modest following, due to his radio show.  This new kinda-celebrity status, tempered with more than a dash of anxiety (what if some of his listeners knew Elizabeth in school?) is a rush for a kid who is starting to glimpse a future full of promise.  But just as Gabe gains confidence, hatred and bigotry materializes, bringing up all the doubts that were just starting to recede.  When that hatred – misdirected, as it often is, yet still malevolent – threatens friends and family, Gabe’s life suddenly becomes far more real.  He is willing to ‘pay the price’ for living his life openly and honestly, but is he willing to allow those he loves to be part of that bargain, as well?

While the message of acceptance is clearly central in this book, what struck me most was how “normal” Gabe is.  He’s just another kid, born to an average family, in a typical town.  He’s not subversive, his thoughts are not freaky or immoral or abhorrent.  They are simply the angst and fears and joys and hopes of any other teen-ager.  And that’s such an important point to stay focused on – something that author Kirstin Cronn-Mills does beautifully.  So often, it’s not the individuals who are deviant, it’s our own thoughts and attitudes about some culturally perceived notion of “normalcy”.  The kids – they’re just kids.  They’re just trying to figure it all out.

Having stories like Beautiful Music for Ugly Children available is a step towards acknowledging our differences, helping to remove a tawdry mystique from a formerly taboo form of diversity and place it squarely in the “hey, it’s no big deal, it’s just my life” realm.  Because just ‘cuz something is not the norm, doesn’t make it abnormal, it just makes it… different.  As Gabe says, “When you think about it, I’m like a record.  Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side – not heard as often, but just as good… It’s time to let my B side play.”

And it’s also time for us to listen.

—Sharon Browning


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com