Better Nate Than Ever

by Tim Federle
First sentence: “I’d rather not start with any backstory.”
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Content: There is some bullying, a bit of swearing, and some frank talk about sexuality and alcoholism. I probably wouldn’t give it to a third grader (it just feels more mature than an 8-year-old, but you know your kid), but a 4th or 5th grader would be fine with it. It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, though the library has it in the teen section (which surprised me).

Nate Foster is a 13-year-old kid living in the blue collar town of Jankburg, PA (just outside of Pittsburg). His dad is a “maintenance engineer” and his mom runs a slowly dying flower shop. They have put all their hopes, dreams, and expectations on Nate’s older brother, Alex, the sports star. Which leaves Nate as the… well… outcast. It doesn’t help that he’s a Broadway musical fanatic, knowing them all, singing away, quoting incessantly. Which leaves his family (and the town) baffled.

Of course, Federle is playing off of stereotypes here: people in blue-collar towns are (obviously) backward and don’t understand Culture. People — boys especially — who like musicals are (obviously) gay. (There is much too much discussion about Nate’s sexuality here. And while his position is “I’m 13, how would I know if I were gay?” it bothered me that musicals are, necessarily, lumped in with being gay. Can we just get over that, now, please?) Boys who are short, overweight, and awkward are (obviously) bullied at school (and by his — jerk is not a strong enough word — older brother).

When Nate finds out about open auditions for a new musical based on the movie E. T. he jumps at the chance. And because he knows his backward parents would never let him, he takes the opportunity (with the help of his friend Libby) to run away to the auditions. He was supposed to go there and back again in a day, but (of course) things don’t quite work out. Which brings us to another cliche here — the kid from the backward blue-collar town has NO IDEA how to make it in New York City. (Which may be true, having never run away to the big city when I was 13.)

Even with all the cliches and stereotypes, this wasn’t a terrible book. And I think what saved it, for me at least, was Nate himself. Federle caught the voice of an awkward, insecure, hopeful kid someone who has been beaten down his whole life, and yet still remains optimistic about everything. He’s adorable, and heart-warming, and just plain fun. It was this that kept me reading, and when I finished, it was this that made the book a good one for me.

Additionally, it’s one of those books that’s good to have out there, if only because it addresses stereotypes. There aren’t that many books out there where the male main character gets to be something other than stereotypically male. Hopefully, boys will pick this up and give it a shot. If only to increase their empathy.

There’s a sequel — Five, Six, Seven, Nate — which just came out. I may even like Nate enough to give that one a shot.

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2 thoughts on “Better Nate Than Ever

  1. This author will be at my kids' elementary school this week, so my 12yo daughter read this one. She found it “weird” and the whole discussion of his sexuality made her feel uncomfortable. Otherwise, she liked it. I think that's good, in a way … it opened up a discussion, anyway.

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