Nate, 13, really wants to be an actor. This is only one of the reasons no one seems to like him. Well, no one except his best friend Libby, who also loves acting. His alcoholic mother seems too wrapped-up in Nate’s athletic older brother, Anthony. His father thinks Nate is a wimp. The kids at school pick on him because he is overweight, and they think he is homosexual. Nate has not actually decided what his sexual orientation is, but still resents the name-calling.
Thus, when Nate decides to run away to New York City to audition for the part of Eliot in “E.T.: the Musical”, he thinks he is leaving all his problems behind. Armed with a cell phone, his mother’s ATM card and hours of Libby’s coaching, Nate figures he can make it in the Big Apple. If not, he will enjoy the greatest city in the world before returning to Jankburg, PA and his miserable life.
What Nate doesn’t count on is Anthony discovering his plan and calling the boys’ Aunt Heidi, who happens to live in New York City. Although she and Nate’s mother haven’t spoken in years, Heidi does come to rescue Nate as he blunders his way through auditions, looking more like a tourist than the tourists. Nate learns that his aunt, as well as her roommate (who explains to Nate that he won’t date Heidi because he prefers men), are both actors, working in a bar while awaiting their first big break.
Better Nate than Ever could have been an uplifting story about a boy who pursues his dream in spite of opposition. Unfortunately, Federle incorporates a blatant sexual theme that is wholly out of place in children’s literature, particularly in a book written for readers of this age. In addition to frequent inappropriate jokes, references to infidelity and pornography and disdain for Christianity, Nate consistently expresses fascination with same-sex attraction. While sexual curiosity may be normal in boys of his age, it is premature, to say the least, for this book’s intended audience. Parents have a right to expect better from a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.