It’s not every boy that has dreams of starring on Broadway. It’s not every boy that can belt out “Defying Gravity.” And it’s really, really, really not every boy that lands a role in a Broadway musical on his first audition. But that is just what Nate Foster did in Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. In the sequel, Fix, Six, Seven, Nate!, Federle takes his main character through rehearsals, crushes, learning lines, learning new lines, learning new, new lines and a surprising opening night.
Nate Foster snuck away from home to go to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical” and his gumption paid off when he earned a space in the ensemble and was even chosen to understudy for E.T. But now rehearsals are starting for real, Nate’s Broadway dream gets grayer and grayer all the time. Some of the other kids are mean, the director and the producer don’t get along, and it seems like no one can agree on anything! Nate starts to work secretly with an actress named Asella who is also understudying for E.T., helping her learn her new lines in exchange for some hard earned backstage wisdom. A twisted vine of events involving mistaken identity, bad first impressions and a poorly timed case of laryngitis land Nate in a once in a lifetime opportunity: playing Elliot, the human lead of the show.
With TV shows like “Glee” on the air, musical theater has been enjoying a boom of popularity in young people, at least from where I sit. This is where first time author Tim Federle wins big, because his books about Nate Foster are a Broadway lover’s dream. Nate and his best friend Libby are fanatics; when they swear, they substitute the names of notorious Broadway flops. Federle name-drops all over the place, and gives fascinating insights into a life in greasepaint. And Nate himself is such a lovable character, flaws and all. He’s sarcastic, self-deprecating (he has concerns about his weight), a little naïve and generally good-hearted. Federle puts Nate through the wringer, but ultimately lets his hero come out on top.
There are not a lot of books out there for middle grade readers that feature LGBTQ characters, and this is another reason why the Nate books are so valuable. In Better Nate than Ever, Nate is ambiguous about his sexuality. He doesn’t quite understand it himself. In Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, things come more into focus when Nate develops a crush (which he later learns is reciprocated) on his co-star and rival, Jordan. Federle’s use of first person narration make Nate’s feelings about his sexuality and his romantic prospects important, but no more important than learning the insane lyricists new chorus for the show-stopper, or figuring out how to become a star. Nate’s sexual orientation both is, and is not a big deal. It is, in so much as it would be a Big Deal in any story about a young teenager experiencing their first real crush, and is not, as neither narrator nor author define Nate’s preference as anything exceptional. Nate describes in an almost bored tone how “last year somebody created a Nate Fagster page on Facebook.” It’s obvious this is something that hurt him, but also that it’s not something upon which he dwells. When Libby asks Nate is she has been replaced, Nate thinks, “Only in that a kiss with him felt like a real kiss.” Nate’s emotions are a big deal. Who is chooses to express those emotions with, isn’t.
Better Nate than Ever was a 2014 Stonewall Award honor book for youth literature. Five, Six, Seven, Nate! was released in January of 2014, and as of this writing, has not won any major awards, though I would not be surprised to see it mentioned in the next few months. Kirkus Reviews wrote that “[w]hile humor is clearly one of Federle's strengths, what sets this novel apart is how beautifully he explores Nate's vulnerabilities, particularly with regard to his sexuality, his family and his own self-esteem.” Federle’s sensitivity to his characters feelings extend beyond Nate as well. Nate’s crush/nemesis, Jordan says of his mother, “She’s go on and on about how a real leading man has to behave like…a real man.” Publishers Weekly calls Nate! a “funny, tender coming-of-age story… that will appeal to every budding theater geek.”
Readers of Tim Federle’s Nate books would (and should) easily transition into Raina Telgemeier’s wonderful graphic novel, Drama, and a troupe of middle school theater fans, led by their stage manager Callie, attempting to put on a production of “Moon Over Mississippi.” Callie works behind the scenes, but her relationships, both romantic and platonic, echo Nate’s trials. Kieran Scott’s Geek Magnet: A Novel in Five Acts is another great teen title about the backstage geekery with relationship drama. Finally, John Green’s YA novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson touches on sexuality, identity and, of course, theater!
Federle, Tim. Five, Six, Seven, Nate! New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014. ISBN: 9781442446939