Being the father of three boys who never saw a stage they didn't want to dance on, sing from, or declaim from, I was really looking forward to this one. It didn't disappoint.
The Story (from the jacket cover):
Nate Foster has big dreams. His whole life, he’s wanted to star in a Broadway show. (Heck, he'd settle for seeing a Broadway show.) But how is Nate supposed to make his dreams come true when he’s stuck in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where no one (except his best pal Libby) appreciates a good show tune? With Libby’s help, Nate plans a daring overnight escape to New York. There's an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical, and Nate knows this could be the difference between small-town blues and big-time stardom. Now's his chance to explore the city, wow the casting director, out-sing the competition, and hop the last bus home before anyone notices he's gone. No big deal, right? But exciting as it is, the Big Apple can be big trouble. And if Nate isn't careful, he'll be lucky if he makes it through Times Square, much less the audition.
"I'd rather not start with any backstory.
I'm too busy for that right now: planning the escape, stealing my older brother's fake ID (he's lying about his height, by the way), and strategizing high-protein snacks for an overnight voyage to the single most dangerous city on earth."
What I Liked:
The Voice. As you can see from the opening lines, Nate has got it in spades. "He's lying about his height, by the way" immediately characterizes the sort of kid we're dealing with: someone who is funny, smart, sassy at times. And there's lots of Humor, too.
The character of Nate: I love the obsession with Broadway plays that Nate and his best friend, Libby, share. For swear words, they use the names of Broadway shows they consider to be flops (Dance of the Vampires, no! Or "Oh, Carrie!!). Tim Federle makes us care for Nate--much less physically gifted than his older brother, Anthony--but so possessed by this dream of the stage that he is brave enough to set off alone for New York to audition for E.T.: The Musical.
The Stage. Gosh, for a stage Papa like me, this was a fiendishly realistic portrayal of the emotions bubbling under some of one's fellow stage parents as one waits with one's kids for their audition call. Here's a brief scene where Nate meets a boy, Jordan Rylance, whom Libby knows from her former school:
"Mommy," I watch him whisper, waving a thermos in the air, "my water isn't hot anymore."There's also some great writing revolving around "the creatives" who are sitting in on Nate's audition.
His Mommy jumps up, dropping a weird leopard-print coat behind (presumably to mark the territory as her own), racing away with Jordan's water canister... (Nate then asks Jordan some questions about the audition.)...His Mommy returns, holding that boiling thermos of Jordan-water, and snaps to me: "Can I help you?" But not in an "I want to help you" way, like, at all."
The Way Federle deals with Nate's sexuality is very appropriate for middle grade. Nate, at 13, calls himself "undecided." "Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food--how would I know who I want to hook up with?" However, he regularly gets called "homo" and "Fagster" by school bullies; later in the novel, he catches sight of two men in New York kissing, and is amazed they can do so without anybody punching them.
The ending. There's family reunification (one of my own favorite themes), and a rallying around Nate after yet one more act of cruelty--a kid during Trick or Treat calling Nate "Super Fag." Nate's reaction? "That kid's an a-hole, and I'm not. Sometimes people are just a-holes, and you have to decide, every day, which kind of kid you are, (Not to get all preachy on you.)"
About the Author (from the book jacket): Tim Federle is the author of over seven hundred e-mails. Born in beautiful San Francisco and raised in character-building Pittsburgh, Tim discovered show tunes in elementary school, prompting bullies to discover Tim. Armed only with grit (and his father's credit card), Tim fled to New York City as a teenager. He has since worn a Tina Turner wig at the Super Bowl, a polar bear suit at Radio City, and a big fat grin in five Broadway shows. Better Nate than Ever is Tim's first novel. Say hi at TimFederle.com and on Twitter @TimFederle.