Book review: 'Nate' successfully deals with tough teen issues


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In an ever-expanding world of niche interests (thanks, Internet!), children and teens who don't conform to the mainstream have more opportunities than ever to seek out like-minded individuals who share their appreciation for Japanese manga comics or obscure 1950s board games or Broadway show tunes.

Fans of the Great White Way will most appreciate the comic, heartwarming "Better Nate Than Ever" by former Upper St. Clair resident Tim Federle. Ostensibly a book for middle schoolers, it's entertaining enough for any age, especially for readers who remember feeling ostracized during their teen years.


"BETTER NATE THAN EVER"

By Tim Federle
Simon & Schuster ($16.99).


Awkward, vulnerable Nate Foster feels stuck in fictional Jankberg, Pa., where he's forever in the shadow of his jock older brother and perpetually picked on at school with only his supportive friend Libby by his side. Then he and Libby formulate a plan to get Nate to Manhattan to audition for a Broadway show -- "E.T.: The Musical" -- while his parents are away for an anniversary weekend.

Mr. Federle, who had a successful stage career in five Broadway shows (including "Gypsy" and "The Little Mermaid") and has more recently worked as a choreographer and coach to child actors, gets all the details right, not just about Broadway but about the way a child would perceive Broadway. Nate doesn't just want to be a star; he's absorbed at least a partial history of musical theater, using the names of Broadway flops as substitutes for curse words.

A good chunk of the book is set during Nate's audition, which allows Mr. Federle to have fun exploring all the different types of kids who want to act on Broadway, all the different types of parents who tote them to auditions, and all the adult representatives of a Broadway show who play their roles in the process, no matter how seemingly superfluous and needlessly officious they are.

While Nate's zeal combined with comic mishaps form the backbone of "Better Nate Than Ever," Mr. Federle weaves in more serious subject matter, including an estrangement between Nate's mother and her black sheep sister, who comes to Nate's rescue in New York. Most notably, Mr. Federle takes a particularly deft, agile approach to Nate exploring his sexuality.

When Nate recounts the story of kids at school calling him a gay slur, he tells readers, when it comes to his sexuality, "I am undecided. I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major, and frankly don't want to declare anything other than, 'Hey, jerks, I'm thirteen, leave me alone.' "

Flashbacks throughout the book tell of the bullying Nate has endured growing up, but he's a resilient kid and the story never threatens to go to a too dark place. When he runs across a gay club in his exploration of New York he observes it from afar, awestruck to find, "A world where guys who look like me and probably liked the 'Phantom of the Opera' movie, too, can dance next to other guys who probably liked 'Phantom' and not get threatened or assaulted."

"Better Nate Than Ever" isn't the first young adult novel about a teen who's coming out to himself, but it takes an approach that's realistic and perhaps even helpful to young readers who can identify with Nate as they come to terms with their own sexuality.

If the book disappoints at all it's in a cliffhanger ending that won't be resolved until the sequel, "Five, Six, Seven, Nate," is released next year.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published April 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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