Sunday, April 20, 2014

Phone home

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen (which probably won't be as funny if I ever watch it again) was The Tall Guy, with Jeff Goldblum playing an actor cast in the title role of a musical version of The Elephant Man. I kept thinking of this movie while listening to Broadway dancer/author Tim Federle's Better Nate Than Ever. The hero of this novel, 13-year-old Nate Foster, takes a bus trip (without his parents' knowledge) from Jankberg, Pennsylvania to the Great White Way in order to audition for a musical version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This book did not make me laugh so hard I cried.

Nate's journey, planned with all the confidence that a 13-year-old can bring to such an adventure (see an earlier version of this), goes awry from the beginning ... but he makes it to the audition, gets a chance to show his chops, meets a long-estranged aunt (who also had Broadway dreams, but now waits tables at an oyster bar), and ... well, finds out stuff about himself. He's truly an innocent abroad; in addition to walking wide-eyed into all of New York's dangers, he doesn't know the audition game, unlike all of the professional children he encounters. For me, some of these situations were mildly amusing, but mostly I did a lot of cringing. It is also way too long -- not once, but twice, Nate is headed out of town thinking he has failed when he gets a last-minute message to call back. For starstruck tweens, though, this book will be a hit (if they're OK with the gay-positive message).

Nate is self-deprecating, wise-cracking, and funny-sad; he's very short and ... what did that chubby-boy-size used to be called? ... Husky (a box of donuts and pizza are his food supply while in Manhattan). His family doesn't really get him -- preferring instead his athletic older brother -- and he's bullied at school. He's got one friend, next-door neighbor Libby -- who shares his love of drama, theatrical and otherwise. Nate tells us that he's not gay, he's a "freshman at the college of sexuality and am undecided in my major," which is actually pretty refreshing. This book walks an odd line: it's funny and engaging (at least for this former New Yorker), but it's also really, really message-y. Let the angel choir begin: Be true to yourself and you can achieve your dreams.

Federle reads his novel, and he was rewarded by the Odyssey Committee for his work. (The Stonewall Children's Literature Award committee also gave this an honor this year.) Even though he's originally from California, Federle narrates the book with a nice western Pennsylvania broadness. He doesn't attempt to recreate a 13-year-old's voice, which means he sounds a little adult. And he sounds gay to me, which I'm trying to delineate for you what that means in a speaking voice: overly precise and kind of tsk-tsk-y. (This is not helpful, I realize, but I believe I know gay when I hear it.)  Federle doesn't really try to create voices for the other characters; he reads females with a slightly higher register and goes somewhat wrong when he tries to do an English accent for one of the audition directors. Following dialogue wasn't very difficult because of how the story was written, although I confess that the multitude of adults that led the audition (director, musical director, choreographer, etc.) all blended together.

As with many other awards, the Monday-morning quarterbacking of what-were-they-thinking for the ALA YMAs isn't really fair, but it is fun. It's not fair, because I haven't listened to all the audiobooks that the Odyssey Committee listened to so I don't know the universe from which they selected Better Nate Than Ever. Bearing this in mind, I'm not seeing/hearing what was stellar about this narration. Yes, Federle reads with that intimacy that only authors have, but this is not a unique or difficult piece of literature -- many experienced narrators would have been able to sound more youthful and more skillfully explore the story's many characters, and quite possibly have moved the story on with a little more sprightly pacing. The most obvious Odyssey book to connect to here is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and Nate/Federle is simply not in that league.

(For a much better second opinion on an award-winning book, read Patrick Ness' evisceration of a National Book Award finalist, Far Far Away, in his essay for the Battle of the Kids' Books.)

Possibly the best part of this book for me was very Broadway-insider. Libby and Nate swear by invoking famous Broadway flops: "Moose Murders it all to tarnation!", "Frickin' Carrie," "Holy Dance of the Vampires!" There wasn't one time that this wasn't funny, but are those drama-loving tweens going to get it?

Finally, the cover. While Nate tells you that he is short for his age (4'8"), the boy on the cover looks really young. Young enough that pre-tweens and their parents might think this is a good book for them. But Nate doesn't shy away from talking about the realities of middle school, the bullying he's experienced, "faggot" is said several times, and the bodily mysteries of the adolescent boy are addressed. Commonsense Media says 10, one of its kid reviewers says eight (but parents, s/he says, read it first), and a teen at the site says 11. And that pretty much sums up the difficulties of rating anything.

[The E.T.-like photograph was taken at a Spanish mountain bike competition by José Antonio Gil Martínez. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Narrated by the author
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 5:54

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