The theater bug bit me in elementary school when a teacher cast me as the narrator in a play about Greek mythology. I loved rehearsing, always knowing just what to say thanks to the script, the freedom of being someone else for a while. On opening night, I whipped out a southern accent for the first act, slipped on my bum in act two, spoke like a sleepy Jersey girl by act three and still took my bow feeling fairly confident I’d found my calling.
My dad rubbed his sleepy eyes after the show and asked if I had fun. Fun? Fun was hardly the word that came to mind after weeks of memorizing lines and painting scenery over pizza and tang. Fun didn’t happen that night in our multipurpose assembly room, art did. I breathed life into Mrs. Pennyfeather and my proud papa somehow slept through it. His loss.
So as someone who moved to NYC to be a part of the theater world, Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever struck me as a guaranteed good time.
Nate Foster is 12 years old and wants to be on Broadway more than anything in the world. Not someday maybe, but right now. Living in Janksburg, Pennsylvania is not making his quest easy. How to get to what he sees as the place where children’s dreams come true from PA? By bus, of course. When he learns open auditions are being held in NYC for the part of Eliot in E.T. the musical, he schemes his way there with the help of his best friend and co-star, Libby.
From page one, you can’t not adore Nate. He’s the kind of singing kid who gets picked on at school and misunderstood by his parents, but he’s quick on his toes and bursting with enthusiasm. His trip to the city and first impressions of fast walking, faster talking New Yorkers is stereotypical, but so true and funny through the eyes of a kid in love with the city he just met.
As Federle is no stranger to the stage, his play by play of the auditions at Ripley-Grier studios is speckled with detailed nerves and giddy hopefuls. The audition lends structure to Nate’s escalating adventure, which includes a salsa hop-thieving dinner and a trip downtown where, to his wonderment, he catches a glimpse of a club and sees:
A world where guys who look like me and probably liked the Phantom movie, too, can dance next to other guys who probably liked Phantom and not get threatened or assaulted.
I loved everything about this book – the story, characters, writing, and perspective of NYC told with such optimism. Nate’s life is far from a fairy tale. He’s a normal kid figuring out who he is and what it feels like to put himself out there for something he really wants. The length he’ll go to to make his dreams come true – because why not – has no end. His bravery, humor and heart make him a character both boys and girls can relate to and cheer for.
This is one of the most joyful middle grade books I’ve read. That Nate’s adventure takes place in the real world, a place without dragons and wizards and dark overlords, makes it all the more fantastic. Yes we do live in a city with scary cab drivers and snooty stage moms, but here you can be anything. If you walk down the street dressed like a cat because you feel like it, people don’t judge. In fact, they assume you’re going someplace way cooler than they are.
My love for theater faded years ago, but this story was a nice reminder of what it was like to be so enamored of what can happen on a stage that you’re willing to leap blindly into the fire. My leap involved hanging from the rafters of a scrappy theater to scrape paint from a window with a razor blade, and mopping honey from a naked performance artist. Nate’s leap is much more exciting and PG rated.
More fun times with Nate are still to come. This is book one in what I hope will be an endless series of cringe-inducing fabulous ideas disguised as train wrecks. Read it!