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Newbery or Not: Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Book Blurb: “Nate Foster has big dreams. His whole life, he’s wanted to star in a Broadway show. (Heck, he’d settle for *seeing* a Broadway show.) But how is Nate supposed to make his dreams come true when he’s stuck in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where no one (except his best pal Libby) appreciates a good show tune? With Libby’s help, Nate plans a daring overnight escape to New York. There’s an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical, and Nate knows this could be the difference between small-town blues and big-time stardom.”

Pub Stub: Simon & Schuster BFYR, ISBN-10 1442446897, February 2013

Author Tidbits: Federle, Tim. Former broadway dancer. Better Nate is his debut in children’s fiction.

Newbery or Not: I want to begin my analysis by saying that I love this story and would definitely recommend it to tweens who like humor or who feel like they simply don’t fit in with their surroundings. Whether it gets recognition from the Newbery committee, on the other hand, is another matter and will be interesting to see. I think as a quest story, as a coming-of-age story, as a character-driven story, Better Nate Than Ever is certainly distinguished. Federle is enormously talented. However, if this book does win, I predict the majority of buzz about it will surround the possibility that the main character is gay. Readers can infer easily that while Nate isn’t heavily interested in matters of sexuality yet–he’s completely focused on acting at this point in his life–he doesn’t identify as straight and is interested in the idea of homosexuality, or at least the idea that NYC is a place where homosexuals can live and love openly (he sees men kissing openly and meets his aunt’s gay roomie.) I have even seen some (non-professional) reviews complaining that homosexuality isn’t a fit subject matter for the intended audience and that Federle is pushing a pro-gay agenda. Both claims are a matter of opinion, and appropriateness is for parents to decide on an individual basis, not librarians. If Better Nate Than Ever does win, it would hardly be the first Newbery winner with controversial content. Bridge to Terabithia has been criticized as too sad; The Giver has an infanticide scene. The Newbery Committee isn’t going to discriminate based on content.

Anyway, basically that entire paragraph was a preface to what I’m about to say, which is that the scenes dealing with homosexuality do not feel well-integrated into the greater narrative. Other side issues such as Nate’s family dynamic, his connection with his long-lost aunt, and even his best friend’s mother’s cancer treatments fit more believably into the larger story of Nate trying to land a Broadway role and survive for a couple of days in NYC. Every time sexuality is mentioned, it feels like it’s left from an earlier draft that dealt with the topic more heavily, or like it was added last minute to give more flavor to NYC. There’s just no subtlety to it. In other words, if this book did win, we would probably see a lot of fuss about a minor aspect, and not least because it doesn’t seem to quite fit. Should Nate score big, I hope everyone will remember that its greatest merit lies in the encouragement to live your dreams and find the right place for yourself, no matter the obstacles. Oh, and also the encouragement to make yourself puke if ever you’re being mugged.

Weigh in: What Newbery winner would you most like to see made into a Broadway musical, with or without a part for Nate?


2 responses »

  1. Ah the mythical “pro-gay agenda” that apparently means acknowledging the existence of gay people in a neutral or positive light. As opposed to virtually every other book in our culture that “promotes” heterosexuality as exclusively normative. This “objection” also assumes that all young readers are straight – no gay teens exist apparently (guess I was the only one). This apparently “liberal” reviewer still treats homosexuality as such an alien concept that it must fit into a greater narrative – no such rules apply to heterosexuality.

    • I do not claim to be liberal, and the purpose of this blog is not to be liberal, conservative, moderate, or whatever. It’s to discuss kids’ books and show pictures of felt sets.

      To me, the author seemed unsure in his writing in those few moments where he addressed Nate’s exposure to homosexuality, and those moments felt boxed off from the rest of the story. It’s not an issue of me being uncomfortable with homosexuality, it’s that the author seemed hesitant every time he brought it up, and those brief moments were clumsily inserted into the rest of the story, breaking up the flow. If Nate had been discovering he was interested in girls and it got handled the same way, I still would feel it was an underdeveloped part of the story. In the second book, Nate falls for another boy, and it’s handled much more gracefully and completely. I still would have liked to see more emotion in the relationship, but hey, it’s middle grade, so I can’t expect as much swoony stuff as I’d see in YA.

      I certainly didn’t object to the author bringing up homosexuality or to Nate being homosexual, nor do I assume all young people are straight. If I assumed that, I would not bother purchasing books about LGBTQIA characters for our library, and I would not refuse to remove these books when they are challenged by people who say they think children should not read about sexuality at all–never acknowledging, of course, that a child character’s straight married parents are showing sexuality as much as gay parents would. THAT is what I was concerned about when I said I didn’t want the rest of the book to be overshadowed by the fact that the main character may be gay–this book is about art and music and bravery and going for your dreams, and I was afraid that would all get lost because in children’s literature, you traditionally do not have gay characters who are gay because some people are gay. It’s traditionally been treated as a statement. That is changing, and has shifted greatly even in the three-ish years since this book came out thanks to more books featuring LGBTQIA characters as normal human beings instead of curiosities. I would not worry as much these days that adult readers would miss the point of the book because of one part of who the hero is. Three years ago when this book came out, before #weneeddiversebooks existed? Yeah, it was definitely fair to say “This book is great but people are going to throw a fit because the main character may be gay and the author could have written it a little bit better.”


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