Nate is sure that he was born for Broadway, but unfortunately he was actually born in Jankburg, Pennsylvania (motto: 48.5 miles from Pittsburgh!). Nate and his friend and partner-in-crime, Libby, have been practicing and planning his big break for years, and now the time has come. When Nate’s parents leave for a marriage-healing weekend away, Nate packs up his backpack and takes off for the bus station. He blusters his way onto the bus and lands in fabulous New York City just in time for an audition for a new musical of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
This fast-paced and uplifting novel is told in first person by the intrepid Nate himself, a short, chunky thirteen-year-old whose backside is saved more than once by his estranged Aunt Heidi. Nate is completely open about the fact that his parents constantly compare him to his older brother, Anthony, school jock and everything his father ever wanted to be. Nate is continually beaten up at school for doing socially unacceptable things like belting out show tunes in the restroom. Federle has written his sympathetic main character in a pitch-perfect voice. It’s impossible not to like and root for this plucky, determined young star.
Realism is not necessary for all novels, but Nate does get more than his share of breaks. An obviously confused young boy on the streets of New York would probably not fare as well as Nate, and one hopes that readers would understand that.
This book has been mentioned for the Newbery, but I do not think it will win for a couple of reasons. As you may have guessed, boys who are absolutely sure of all the words to Phantom of the Opera may not be as certain of their sexuality, particularly at the age of thirteen. Nate is very tuned in to the issue of homosexuality and is amazed to find out that New York, as opposed to Jankburg, is very accepting of gay relationships. While Libby is back home thrilling to the sight of Nate’s brother, Anthony, with his shirt off, Nate sees two boys kissing in a club and finds out that his aunt’s roommate dates other men. All of this is related very innocently—no sex scenes at all—but it is an important theme in the book. Since the Newbery Medal is for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature, any sort of sexual discussion probably pushes it up out of the range, even though the upper end is fourteen. Unfortunately for Better Nate Than Ever, it is probably too young for the Printz Award, since it is for teen literature, and Nate is truly young for his age. Such a conundrum.
All that being said, awards are not everything, and if you have a child born to tread the boards, they will be fascinated by all of Nate’s suffering in front of pretentious directors and casting teams and the emotional rollercoaster of callbacks. He is quite a personable young man, and since all of his family problems are not solved in this volume— and in many ways his adventures have just begun—a sequel has just come out called Five, Six, Seven, Nate! The show must go on.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.