"The point of 'Better Nate Than Ever' is not to raise eyebrows. It's just to tell a hopefully funny story that reaches people," Broadway performer-turned-author Tim Federle said referencing his coming-of-age novel which was acclaimed by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly shortly after hitting shelves in 2013 from Simon & Schuster.
Multi-award-winning and critically hailed, "Nate" tells the story of Nate Foster, a 13-year-old Pennsylvania boy who dreams of making his way to the Great White Way. When he finds out about an open casting call for E.T. the Musical, Nate leaps at the opportunity and heads to New York City without parental permission, much less a chaperone. There he discovers a whole new world of lights, people, and bustle that he couldn't have even imagined.
A tale that would fit seamlessly among the canons Roald Dahl or Judy Blume, "Better Nate Than Ever" deals with ambition, familial struggles, the claiming of one's own identity and a host of other coming-of-age issues that its preteen readers are inevitably facing. And Federle, who has spent the nearly two years since the book's release touring the country as a motivational speaker with Nate as the inspiration, has seen firsthand the incredible impact the book has had. Sporadically, though, some schools and conferences have canceled his events.
Federle described some of the organizations' reasons as "nebulous at best." Planned months in advance, these short-notice cannings caused Federle's inner 13 year-old to fill in the blanks. "If you grow up getting called names you can sense tone, and I know why they canceled on me. Other schools," he continued, "have been more overt and just said, 'There's a middle schooler in your book that thinks he might be gay so we're going to cancel on you.'" Federle's disappointment in the small wave of cancellations came to a head when the Pittsburgh, PA middle school that was his alma mater pulled the plug. "What was hardest was imagining a little version of me in school. Struggling with anything. [The kids missed] meeting somebody who's been in their shoes and still the next day gone on and chose to go on."
Nate Foster, the protagonist in "Better Nate Than Ever" is attracted to boys; and his adventure to New York allows him to see a world where being a boy and liking other boys is acceptable and nothing of which to be ashamed. The novel, though colored with Nate's grappling with his sexuality, is about a young person with a dream and the ambition to pursue it.
"Middle school books don't typically contain a lot of overt sexuality and I didn't want this one to either," Federle explained. "I just wanted it to be what it was like when I was 13 and hanging out with all my theatre friends and way more in love with theatre than I was with any other person; but also starting to develop those feelings of, 'I am different and not just because I have tap shoes.'
"It's a bummer when any school cancels because that typically tells me that's the community that probably needs the example the most," he said.
In the book, Nate is harassed and bullied about a number of qualities, including his potential sexuality, which was a direct pull from Federle's own youth. "In some ways my 13-year-old years were the most traumatic because of what kids were calling me at school, my parents and I didn't totally get along, I had this golden boy older brother; but they were also the best years ever because there was no pressure to be anything."
And on the subject of bullying, Federle offers unique and Broadway-inspired advice: "Bullying doesn't stop when you get out of school. So I always try to tell kids that bullies will exist through adulthood. I try to talk to them about coping mechanisms, like finding people who understand you and love you for who you are. So that rather than trying to adjust yourself to please others, do your thing and find the people who love that.
"It's like that [title of show] line: 'I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing.'"
Despite the few cancellations, the reach of Federle's words and Nate's message cannot be stifled. Correspondences from readers say things like:
"Thank you so much for writing this hopeful, funny character who battles with something that a lot of kids battle with — any level of bullying."
"My 13-year-old son just came out to us and it happened to coincide with 'Better Nate Than Ever' being on our shelf at home. And I'm so glad it was there as a resource."
"It's really gratifying writing for middle schoolers," Federle said, "because no matter how popular somebody seems, I've never met an adult ever who didn't in some way, at some point feel like some version of an outcast in middle school. No matter the surface, you don't know that they're not dealing with some big issue. They're right on the precipice of being adults and being babies so it's a really exciting voice." The shift from performer to author is continually affirmed for Federle. "It's great to go to a stage door and sign an autograph, but for me there's nothing more gratifying than getting an email that comes in at two in the morning from across country from a kid in Utah who says, 'Ohmigod I finally read a book where I found a character who's like me.' That is an amazing feeling. That is the coolest thing, because I didn't have to be there to perform it. That's the power of the written word. They live on," he said.
In 2013 when "Better Nate Than Ever" was published, Federle wondered about its relevancy. A conversation about the ostracizing of kids because of their differences felt like such a worn topic. It only seemed logical people had all gotten the picture and should have changed for the better. But the "reality" Federle said, "is I think it's as relevant as ever. For every fantastic Tumblr about gay prom pictures, there's just as much vitriol. And sometimes, living on the coast, we forget that America is a big place and the world is a really big place full of people who still need lessons in tolerance. And I guess we sort of all do."
Federle's "Fix, Six, Seven, Nate!," which continues the young hero's journey toward his dream, was published earlier this year, and Federle continues to tour, speaking with young students and teachers about both books. There's still hope that Federele will finally get to return "home" and talk with the students at his own Pittsburgh-area middle school. After all, it was the place that helped shape Nate's world and put two young men — one fictional and one real — on paths to self-acceptance and success.