Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013. Currently available.
Genre: Middle grade realistic fiction.
Face Value: This is such an exuberant cover! Nate on the red carpet in NYC is a joyful image of a boy who is learning to fully embrace his identity. It’s a dramatic cover, which fits a highly dramatic story with lots of plot turns. Note the nod to E.T. in the upper left corner – clever, and awesome.
Does it break the slate? This book is, by my count, only the second book we have reviewed her on Slatebreakers with a boy as the protagonist. (The other was the fabulous Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.) Even though we focus our reviewing on books that feature outstanding young female characters, it’s important that we acknowledge male characters who are also challenging stereotypes. Nate Foster in Better Nate Than Ever is definitely breaking the slate. He is a boy who risks everything to pursue a dream and get away from the closed-mindedness of his small town. He fears the bullying that he encounters every day, but he is smart enough to know he can make life choices that will lead him away from all of that in the future.
Who would we give it to? The boy who loves musical theatre and gets picked on for it – this is the book for him. Or for any theatre nerd. It would also be appropriate for any youth who is feeling stifled by their small town existence and feel that they are destined for something different, something that would never be accepted in their hometown.
Review: Nate Foster is unlike any other boy character I have read recently in middle grade fiction. He is unafraid to publicly declare his love of musical theatre. His best friend is a girl with an alarming degree of knowledge about how to survive on the streets of New York. And although he is big and bold and creative, Nate also openly admits to self-doubt about his appearance and identity. Better Nate Than Ever is the kind of middle grade novel that we need in a world where youth are constantly bullied for differing from the norm. Although the It Gets Better campaign has inspired many youth to push past the pain of adolescence by looking toward the opportunities in adulthood, we also need characters who show youth that life can be good now if they pursue their goals.
Middle grade books marketed to boy readers, (just like middle grade books targeted at girl readers), tend to have a common menu of themes. There are sports stories (think Mike Lupica’s novels), man vs. nature stories (like Hatchet), and stories with boy characters who like to bend the rules at school (many of Andrew Clements’ books). Very rarely do we read about a boy character who will burst out in song at the top of his lungs, memorize Broadway soundtracks, and stage elaborate productions in his backyard. Better Nate Than Ever is a Slatebreaking book because it celebrates a boy character who would normally be the “best friend” type for a girl character in any other book.
Frustrated with the limited audition opportunities in his hometown of Jankburg, PA, Nate runs away temporarily to audition for a stage musical version of E.T. in New York City. (That’s a brilliant idea, by the way. E.T. would make a fantastic musical. Somebody needs to get on that.) While in NYC, Nate meets up with his long-lost-aunt who also happens to be an unsuccessful actor. Her role throughout the story is kind of implausible, but her function in this book is to be an adult who is willing to accept Nate as he is. Because Aunt Heidi is willing to support Nate in his pursuits, Nate feels that they may be worthwhile than his parents ever let him believe.
Nate quickly learns that the audition process can be cruel and disappointing. While in NYC for his brief adventure, he discovers that not everyone he meets on the street is trustworthy. His visions of artistic genius are crushed when he realizes that some of the Broadway creative team folks are major jerks. He also has his encounters with openly gay individuals.
This is one of the aspects of storytelling that I appreciated about this book: Nate’s sexual orientation is implied, but never fully explored. Because he’s thirteen years old. This story is not a romance, and whether or not Nate likes boys or girls does not really matter. Nate is a character with plenty of depth and nuance without having to add the complexity of coming out. Sure, he loves musical theatre and is grossed out at the idea of kissing girls, but he has no idea who he’s attracted to. It was refreshing to read about a character who is just on the verge of realizing his own sexuality without making that the major point of the story.
I’ve already used this word to describe the book, but I need to say it again: this book is incredibly refreshing. Using humor and shenanigans that will appeal to middle grade readers, this book introduces a character that is desperately needed in this social climate. I am so happy to see Nate Foster break on to the scene.
Reviewed from library copy.