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Dorothy's List: 'Better Nate Than Ever'

Amy Kolb Noyes
Fifth graders at Grand Isle School have been listening to Tim Federle's 'Better Nate Than Ever' as a group read-aloud.

This month we go to Grand Isle School, where fifth graders have been reading Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. The book draws on Federle's own experience in musical theater and the classic middle school experience of feeling like an outcast.

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a reputation in his small Pennsylvania town of being, well, something of a wimp. Yet his undeniable love of musical theater leads him on a bold adventure in Tim Federle's novel. Nate sneaks out of his house and hops a bus bound for New York City. He's in the Big Apple, all on his own, to audition for what he's sure will be the next big thing on Broadway – E.T.: The Musical.

At Grand Isle School, the librarian found a recording of the song Nate sings for his audition.  Part of the song states, "Bigger isn’t better. Taller isn’t braver. Stronger isn’t always wise. Smaller isn’t necessarily the lesser. Guts can come in any size."

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Fifth graders at Grand Isle School had a lot of fun with Tim Federle's 'Better Nate Than Ever.'

Librarian Annie Brabazon asked the fifth grade what they thought the song had to do with Nate’s character. Kristian Richardson responded, "I think when the line on the song says, 'taller isn’t braver' Nate, in the story, he’s not tall but he’s really brave. So I think that kind of relates to Nate."

When Ms. Brabazon asked what makes Nate brave, Sarah Bartlett said, "I think Nate’s brave because he snuck out of his house into New York to do an audition and his mom and dad don’t know about it yet, but I think they’re gonna find out."

The fifth graders in Grand Isle had some insightful thoughts about Better Nate Than Ever. They also came up with some interesting questions that we put to author Tim Federle.

Jayde Kornn:  I wonder what the story would be like if he was one of those really popular boys in school What gave you the idea to make him sort of like left out, outcasted sort of?

Tim Federle: I got the idea to make Nate an outcast because, now that I’m a grown-up, I realize every single adult I meet including, like Jayde said, the really popular boys, at some point in middle school felt like an outcast. Every single one of us. And so I wanted to write the story Better Nate Than Ever from the perspective of a kid who is always chosen last for dodge ball but will some day become something really wonderful, based largely on the very qualities that get him made fun of back in school.

Aaron Grenon: How’d you get the idea of this book? Did something happen in your life to have this book be an idea? Or is it something you just thought up?

Tim Federle: What a great question! Okay, I got the idea to write Better Nate Than Ever because when I was a middle schooler I felt like a total alien and I also was in love with theater, which are two things that often go together. And so, I was working on Broadway as an adult, as one of the Associate Choreographers on the Broadway production of Billy Elliot and I was training all of these middle schoolers to play this big Broadway role. And it dawned on me, maybe I had a story to tell that could combine the way I felt as a kid, which again was an alien, and also the experiences I had witnessing these Broadway kids. And so, Better Nate Than Ever came out of that and the book is now about a boy who crashes this audition for E.T.: The Musical, and I chose E.T. because I felt like an alien.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Nate Sarnow dancing to character Nate Foster's audition song.

Nate Sarnow: Why did you pick for Nate Foster’s Aunt Heidi to come to New York and save him, and try to get him back in time?

Tim Federle: Well first of all, Nate, you have the best name ever. So, I chose for my character Nate’s Aunt Heidi to save him for two reasons. First of all, you know the book takes place in News York City and Nate is this 13-year-old who has never been out of Pennsylvania. And so, I didn’t feel comfortable having a 268-page book that didn’t include, at some point, some adult supervision. And, second of all, I chose for Aunt Heidi to come and to kind of rescue Nate, in a way, because Heidi’s dream was to be a Broadway star also. And I wanted Nate to re-inspire his Aunt Heidi to not forget that she has a dream too. And a lot of times adults, and kids don’t realize this, but a lot of time adults become incredibly inspired by the little people around them, who have incredibly big dreams that are bigger than their height.

Sam Cruz: When he was on the bus going home, when he got that voice mail? Why did you choose to have a miracle and get that voice mail on the bus?

Tim Federle: Hey Sam. I chose that because in my own life, I was a dancer in the Broadway production of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, the show about the flying car. And when I first auditioned for the show I got cut right away. Meaning, I went to audition, I danced for about 35 seconds and they cut me. And then six months later I was the first replacement cast member in the show. And then on my first day of rehearsal the choreographer ran up to me and said, “Why weren’t you here originally? We would have loved to have had you in the show.” And I said, “Uh, you cut me.” So in Better Nate Than Ever there are several things that feel like miracles. And what they really are, is me revealing that sometimes adults make mistakes.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Kiara Smith during a group discussion at the Grand Isle School library.

Kiara Smith: How did you get the idea for Libby going through the older brother’s underwear drawer?

Tim Federle: I had the idea that Libby would sort of explore Nate’s older brother’s underwear drawer because when I was a little kid I was constantly curious about boys and girls who were about three or four years older than I was. And I think there’s a fascination when you’re in middle school, all the way up through high school, frankly, with people who are just a little bit older than you and how their bodies are different and how their thoughts are different and how they look different. And I thought it was a very honest thing because, frankly, this is something I did. To have Libby go on a little fact-finding mission to see what Anthony’s life is like behind the scenes.

Better Nate Than Ever gives readers a peek behind the scenes on Broadway. And it also taught the fifth graders at Grand Isle School to look beyond the stereotypes, and see we all have inner strengths and hidden talents.

Dorothy's List is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.