- OnStage New York Columnist
Advice to all you writers out there: know the market, know the history, know the lineage. Know what’s been written before, whose act you are following, because you are following someone’s. Even if what you’ve written is a young adult novel about musical theatre, there is a track record of musical theatre in children’s literature. It’s not a long one, but it’s there, and it will come up. It was therefore my professional responsibility to read Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, although I probably would have made my way to it eventually, since in real life the movie E. T.: The Extra Terrestrial is my favorite movie, and in Federle’s book, it’s a new Broadway musical. I mean, how could I resist? But since I’m looking to follow in Federle’s footsteps bringing musical theatre to young readers (something I’ve written about previously), it is important for me to know what he and Nate Foster bring to the table.
The story is of Nate Foster’s escape (without parental knowledge) from Jankburg, Pennsylvania, his grayscale hometown, to New York City to audition for the afore-mentioned science-fiction musical. When I first learned that the book featured a musical based on my favorite movie, I had the reaction I often scoff at when I see other people have it: that’s ridiculous, it could never be a musical, why even contemplate it? But I believe anything could be a musical if handled properly, and besides, Federle isn’t writing the musical itself (though there are snippets of dialogue and a cast breakdown; the best detail is a hinted tap dance number for the finale), he is writing about it. The point of the novel is not that the musical makes sense, it’s what it inspires in young Nate, which is a kind of recklessness that I’ve only seen in John Green novels, and which, as when I read those novels, I rather wish I had had when I was Nate’s age.
Federle’s descriptions of Nate’s first moments in New York City are perfect, as he captures the intimidating size, the disorientation one feels emerging onto a street corner (even after living here for five years) about which way is north, which south, and the people who aren’t necessarily being mean to you, but aren’t going out of their way to be particularly helpful, either. Everyone is just trying to get by, including Nate, who gets just enough help to reach his cattle-call audition, the semi-haphazard nature of which is also a good reflection of the real thing. The story takes place over the course of only a few days, and nearly every minute is accounted for in the text. Some of the ups and downs of the plot seem as convenient to the drama of the story as whether or not Khaleesi’s dragons are in the mood to listen to her in any given episode of Game of Thrones, but it is a children’s novel, carefully constructed, like so many musicals, to be a ride, and a ride it most certainly is.
A blurb on the cover of my copy of the book compares it to Judy Blume, with whom I have some experience and I can see the similarities, but frankly it reminded me more of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, so chaotic were some of Nate’s adventures and escapes. Nate is an appealing protagonist, though as sometimes happens, a supporting player, his best friend Libby, stole quite a few scenes for me, including the chapter from the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate, included in the back of the book. The story of her cancer stricken mother, and the way she skillfully stage manages Nate’s adventure even when it goes off the rails, combined with her impressive knowledge of musical theatre (greater, seemingly, than Nate’s, as she is his teacher), made me more interested in her story and development. Also intriguing, though not enough so to take the spotlight off of Nate, was Nate’s NYC-based actress/waitress aunt, Heidi, who, along with her roommate, brings some down-to-Earth truth-telling to a wild and somewhat fantastical story.
Musical theatre, for kids, is a team sport in which there’s really no winning, except by way of those high school-level Tony Awards knock-offs that keep springing up. Maybe one day it will be more about winning even at that level, but I’d like to think it is still more about team cohesion without that added pressure. There’s a lot for kids to take away from it, from the fascinating stories that populate the musical theatre canon to the elocution skills that come out of a childhood of performing, whether or not one pursues it as a career. It is also, even now, a more accepting circle at that age than most other areas of kid-life, a place for freak flags to fly free. Its presence in children’s literature is, therefore, important, and I hope to see more of it, not just for selfish reasons.
According to Federle’s bio at the back of the book, he (at least) once had an adventure like Nate’s, and I’m curious about the details of that. He has done pretty well for himself since, not only as an author, but as a performer on Broadway (I probably saw him in Gypsy in 2003) and a librettist this past season, co-writing the book for the musical adaptation of another children’s novel, Tuck Everlasting. Children’s books becoming musical theatre is already an industry unto itself. Musical theatre becoming children’s books? I think I see a glimmer.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) as well as books, politics, and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). In addition to his personal blogs, he has also been published on StageLightMagazine.com, TheHumanist.com, AtlasObscura.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com. He has had various jobs off-Broadway.