Book Review of Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

What My Kids Read Reviews Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle Better Nate Than Ever is a new book, just released this year. It’s about a boy who feels out of place in his small hometown in Pennsylvania and dreams of performing on Broadway. He runs away from home to audition for a lead in a musical, and has a wonderful time in New York City. It’s well written and entertaining, but not for my kids.

I found Better Nate Than Ever on Amazon’s bestsellers for ages 9-12, and quite frankly, I would not recommend this for that age range at all. There is strong language and the main character, a thirteen-year-old boy, goes through a homosexual awakening. I gave this book an Extreme Caution rating in Romance/Sex because Nate slowly notices that he is attracted to other men. This is offensive to many parents, and I wanted to be clear that homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book.

The author, Tim Federle, plans to release a sequel next year.

The message of this book is to believe in your dream, persevere, and be kind to others.
My Mom-Meter gives Better Nate Than Ever an overall safety rating of 4 (Extreme Caution) for ages 12 and up.

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsModerately Safe - mentioned, but not glorified

BullyingModerately Safe - mentioned, but not glorified

Disrespectful AttitudesCaution

Gambling:Safe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorModerately Safe - mentioned, but not glorified

LanguageExtreme Caution

Magic/SupernaturalSafe - no actual four-letter words

Romance/SexExtreme Caution

Scary ThemesCaution

ViolenceSafe - no actual four-letter words

Plot summary of Better Nate Than Ever: ***Contains Spoilers***

Nate is a thirteen year old boy who loves singing show tunes and everything related to Broadway. Nate’s parents seems neglectful, focused only on Nate’s older brother, Anthony, who is a great athlete (hiding a potential drinking problem). Nate’s father has had an affair, and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. Nate is bullied by his brother and kids at school because he is different. His best friend, a girl named Libby, convinced Nate to sneak away from home while his parents are out of town and audition for a part in ET: The Broadway Musical Version. Nate steals his big brother’s fake ID and his mother’s ATM card, packs a bag and takes a Greyhound bus to New York City. Nate’s audition is a roller coaster of emotions. He keeps thinking that he has been rejected, but he continues to make progress in the selection process.

In the midst of the ups and downs of Broadway auditions, Nate’s carefully woven web of deception unravels at home. Anthony, Nate’s brother, is injured and comes home early from a competition, and finds out what Nate has done. Nate’s best friend blackmailed Anthony with the evidence of beer hidden in Anthony’s underwear drawer, so Anthony covers for Nate. Anthony calls their estranged Aunt Heidi, an aspiring actress turned oyster bar waitress who lives in Queens, who finds Nate and helps him with his initial audition before putting him on a bus home. Nate then receives a callback as the bus is leaving, so he jumps off and heads back for another audition. Nate’s parents come home before Nate returns, and have the neighborhood and even the police looking for him.

After Nate’s second audition, Nate realizes he has no place to go and he is hungry and cold. Nate takes a table at a restaurant, saying his mom is meeting him there, orders a water and eats to baskets of chip and salsa before sneaking out, then he steals a coat from a donation spot. Nate then heads to Aw Shucks, the oyster bar Aunt Heidi works at. While on his way, Nate sees two men kiss, and he is excited and happy to see that it is normal. When Nate arrives at Aw Shucks, Aunt Heidi is shocked to see Nate, and realizes she has to call Nate’s mom (the sister she hasn’t spoken to in years). Nate gets a call that he was not chosen after his last audition and is heartbroken. Aunt Heidi and Freckles her (gay) roommate take Nate back to their apartment. Nate’s mother shows up, drunk, early the next morning to take Nate home. Heidi and Nate’s mother have a reconciliation while Nate goes out to breakfast with Freckles. In a conversation with Libby about one of the bullies at school being outed as gay, Nate realizes that he is probably gay. He has one more callback as the book ends, and it is implied that he is going to get a part in the show.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in Better Nate Than Ever:

  • Nate believes his parents care more about Anthony than him. Nate says “I have to return home as good as Anthony is.” Do you ever feel like you have to measure up to a friend or sibling? Why do you think you feel that way? Do you think that Nate’s parents did care more about Anthony or do you think they just didn’t know what to do with Nate’s unusual interests?
  • Nate describes going to a Christian camp and “accepting Jesus Christ” as his savior. He says that having God for a friend didn’t change anything. “I thought I [accepted Jesus Christ) too, but I think I was just so wrapped up in the spectacle of it all – all the older boys playing acoustic guitars with their shirts off, for one; and the camp counselors dressing up as the Devil to scare us at midnight – that emotion overcame me, and I concluded that that feeling must have been Jesus. That maybe knowing Jesus was like crying and making new friends and being scared and not having parents around, all at once… I thought it would make me belong, somehow. To a club.” After he publicly declares himself a Christian, Nate gets beat up by some boys who told him “God hates fags.” Nate then covers his head with a paper bag because he is ashamed that he was beaten up, and he pretends to be a ghost. Anthony (who had accepted Jesus as savior that night) shoves Nate into the wall and tells him that he wasn’t being a good Christian. “[E]ven with God on my side, everyone still hated me. I still wasn’t fast enough, not with an answer in Social Studies… even with God as a friend, I was still broken.” You might want to talk to your child about what it means to be a Christian, and what it does not mean.
  • Heidi found beer in her sister’s closet and told on her sister. Nate decides to not tell on Anthony hiding beer. Who made the better decision? Why do you think that?
  • Near the end of the book, Nate says “And, by the way, this isn’t one of those things where I tell you that, in life, we’re each both a little good and a little bad, all just trying our hardest. That kid’s an a-hole, and I’m not. Sometimes people are just a-holes, and you have to decide, every day which kind of kid you are.” Do you agree with Nate? How do you decide every day which kind of kid you are?
  • Throughout the story, Nate slowly realizes that he might be interested in men. You might want to have a conversation with your child about what your family believes about sexuality and specifically about homosexuality.

Alcohol/Drugs:

  • Ritalin is mentioned once.
  • Nate says that he is wearing clothes so big, “it does appear as if I could smuggle drugs.”
  • Mentions how a poppy-seed muffin made a high diver’s drug test look like he’s had drugs.
  • A lady smokes cigarettes.
  • A woman has a “smoker’s voice.”
  • Scotch is mentioned once.
  • Aunt Heidi stole a cream dress from her sister in high school, and it ended up stained with red wine.
  • Aunt Heidi smokes. Nate tells her she should quit.
  • Aw Shucks has a cocktail named after Aunt Heidi, called “The Heidi.”
  • Anthony hides beer in his underwear drawer.
  • Nate’s dad’s cousin died in a drunk driving accident.
  • Nate’s mom “has her own sordid past with the bottle.”
  • At Aw Shucks, Nate sits at the bar and talks to Aunt Heidi’s roommate, the barkeeper Freckles. Freckles gives someone a beer. “I don’t get the appeal of beer. I tasted it once…thinking it was apple cider. But yuck. I literally thought somebody had collected rainwater in a boot.”
  • Vodka is mentioned.
  • Nate mom shows up drunk at Aunt Heidi’s apartment at 4 am. “Just as soon as Mom heard from Heidi, she must have packed up a dusty bottle of booze…Mom didn’t actually drink and drive, by the way… In the old days, whenever she had to confront something scary, she’d just get to wherever she was going and sit int he car and drink until she got up the courage.”
  • Aunt Heidi’s boyfriend “kind of drinks too much.”
  • Aunt Heidi smoked in high school.
  • Aunt Heidi found beer in Nate’s mom’s closet in high school.

Bullying:

  • Anthony calls Nate and Libby “Freaks.”
  • Bullies corner Nate and tell him he cannot leave the gym until he makes “three three-pointers in a row.”
  • Bullies call him a “faggot,” Natey the Lady,” and “Fagster.”
  • Nate passes some boys in NYC, “These are the types of boys back home, maybe a year older than I am, who make it their primary interest in life to torture me or, if I’m lucky, murder me.” He pushes himself up against the wall and drops his bookbag, expecting them to pick on him. They don’t. “[I]n the best possible sense, they take no note of me.”
  • Nate mentions a story that Anthony told him “when he was beating me up.”
  • Right after Nate publicly asks Jesus to be his savior at Christian camp, some bullies beat him up and tell him that “God hates fags.”
  • A boy hears Nate singing in the bathroom at school, recorded him, and elbowed Nate in the head. The kids at school called him “the Faggot of the Opera.”
  • Nate has a dream that he gets the part in the musical, and he’s told “You know what this means? It means you don’t have to face those boys back at school…”
  • A girl at school calls Libby a “fat-girl name.”

Disrespectful Attitudes: 

  • Nate tells his mother “I hate you.”

Gambling:

  • “Ninety bucks Uncle Robert Poppins has a delicious Crock-Pot recipe for stewed rabbit, and a hundred bucks he’s cook me and feed the result to Nephew Shawn.”
  • There is “a boy whose socks are pulled so high, he may’ve actually lost a bet with someone.”

Gross Behavior:

  • “Poop” and “pee” are mentioned many times throughout the book. Two boys “pee-peed” their pants during auditions.
  • “Throw up” “puke,” and “vomit” are said several times.
  • “Butt” is used many times. Anthony says he has to get up at the “crack of butt.” Some kids laugh at a janitor’s “exposed butt crack.”
  • Burp is used once.
  • “Potty” is used once.
  • Nate explains that “Moose Murders” is a Broadway flop that one scene was described in Wikipedia: “a mummified paraplegic rises from his wheelchair to kick a man dressed as a moose in the crotch.”
  • A story is told about a firecracker going off in the faculty bathroom at school while a teacher was “on the john, dropping a deuce.”

Language:

  • “Frickin,'” “freaking,” and “flipping” are used.
  • “Oh my God,” “Oh God,” and “God” are used frequently throughout the book.
  • Instead of cursing, Nate and Libby say the names of failed musicals (like “Holy Dance of the Vampires!”)
  • Nate is called a “homo,” “faggot,” and other variations on homosexual.
  • “Stupid” is used many times.
  • Nate sees the Empire State Building “like a big middle finger” at his hometown.
  • “Idiotic” is used many times.
  • “Wierdos” is used once.
  • Nate imagines his dad saying he wants him to stop hanging around “queer kids.”
  • “Moron” is used once.
  • Aunt Heidi works at a restaurant called “Aw Shucks.”
  • Aunt Heidi “flips off” two cab drivers.
  • Someone has a name that Nate’s dad would call “a fool’s name.”
  • “Dear Lord” is used once.
  • “Suck” is used three times.
  • “Tarnation” is used once.
  • “Oh gosh” is used once.
  • “God-darned” is used once.
  • “S_t” is said twice (not the full word shit, just “s_t”), and Nate refers to it as the s-word twice. “I mean really use the bathroom – holy literal s-word…” Freckles says the “S-word.”
  • “Holy cow!” is used once.
  • “Ballsy” is used twice.
  • “Goodness God” is said once.
  • Right after Nate publicly asks Jesus to be his savior at Christian camp, some bullies beat him up and tell him that “God hates fags.”
  • “Jesus Christ!” is said once.
  • “Good golly” is said once.
  • “Heck” is said several times.
  • “Holy Moley” is said once.
  • “Shut up” is said a few times.
  • “‘He’s an a-hole, actually,’ I say. But I really say the whole word…’He’s an a-hole.'” [A-hole is used 4 times.]

Magic/Supernatural:

  • The musical “Dance of the Vampires” is mentioned, in which the Phantom of the Opera is a “blood-drinker.”
  • Nate keeps a rabbit foot with his for good luck.
  • Libby tells Nate to “Break a leg.”
  • Superstitions are mentioned: black cats, opening umbrellas indoors
  • Nirvana is mentioned once in passing.
  • “Wicked” the musical (about the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz) is mentioned a few times.
  • Nate mentions that he wears an old cross “to keep Mom calm.” “A cross that’s practically burning a hole into my clavicle for all the sins simmering in my stupid head.”
  • Nate decides at various moments to go as one character or another for the upcoming Halloween.
  • Nate imagines a woman “cackling like a mad witch.” Nate decides he could go as that woman and call her a “suburban house witch.”
  • Mentions a musical based on the Stephen King novel “Carrie.”
  • Yoga is mentioned twice.
  • Harry Potter is mentioned twice.
  • Nate zombie-walks to the elevator.
  • Hades is mentioned once.

Possibly Offensive Behavior:

  • While “method-acting” a scene from Grease, Nate made Libby pierce his ear repeatedly.
  • A girl does a crazy performance at an audition, and “ends up… balanced on her chin, legs in the air, arms out in an upside-down T, looking like Mr. Jesus Christ himself jumping headfirst into a river made out of a dirty Broadway audition floor.” [I'm assuming this is a reference to "Jesus Christ Superstar"]
  • Tattoos are mentioned twice.
  • A boy has an earring.

Romance/Sex:

  • Libby almost kisses Nate, which scares him.
  • Anthony ask Nate if they are practicing for “Gays and Dolls.”
  • Nate mentions “when Dad had the affair” and says his dad “ran around with an exotic dancer.” He read all about the affair in his mom’s diary.
  • Anthony calls Nate “homo.”
  • Nate describes Anthony as a “girl-addicted sixteen-year-old.”
  • Nate says that his dad is “too cheap to afford a divorce.”
  • Nate’s mom tells him that a neighbor saw him in the woods “prancing around like – you know.” Nate responds in his mind “Like a fairy, right, Mom?”
  • Nate is called a “faggot,” “Natey the Lady,” and “Fagster.”
  • Nate says “My sexuality, by the way, is off-topic and unrelated. I am undecided. I am a freshman in the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major, and frankly don’t want to declare anything other than “Hey, jerks, I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food – how would I know who I want to hook up with?”
  • Nate overhears some boys say “mondo rack,” and he imagines they may be talking about “a Latina girl gaining her first set of boobs.”
  • While “method-acting” a scene from Grease, Nate played Sandy (a female character).
  • Nate imagines his dad saying he wants him to stop hanging around “queer kids.”
  • Nate and Libby sing a song together that sounded like a “lesbian rock ballad.”
  • There are two giggling young men, standing close to each other. Nate notices their tight jeans.
  • Nate notices a young woman has “amazing Rockette legs.”
  • The second audition shares a floor with a pole dancing class. There are many references to woman in body stockings “cooling down with a series of stretches that should not be legal in public, let alone in a hallway.”
  • “Ballsy” is said twice.
  • Nate notices a young man’s “rippling biceps.”
  • Nate refers to the musical “Gypsy” (in which a mother urges her daughter to fame, and ends up urging her into burlesque), saying that he’d “never be comfortable playing a stripper.”
  • Libby makes Anthony take off his shirt and flex for her.
  • Right after Nate publicly asks Jesus to be his savior at Christian camp, some bullies beat him up and tell him that “God hates fags.”
  • Nate notices two guys holding hands “which looked kind of interesting.”
  • Libby tells Nate that the Museum of Sex is near where he is walking in NYC. Nate says “A Museum of sex. Good golly, I wonder what the entry fee is. Like, a kiss?” Libby says “You’re so PG, Nate. I can’t wait until you act PG-13. And I’m going to throw a party when you’re R.”
  • Libby said her uncle is “gayer than a Christmas flag in July.”
  • Nate sees a glimpse into a gay club, and he sees a young guy that looks a little like he does. “He’s smiling such a goofy smile that I’m afraid he’s asking for it. That someone’s going to snap, and punch him… I see a black guy with big puffy hair coming at him…the security guard…kicks the door closed. And just before it clicks shut, and I run to it, unaware where I am for a moment, like I’m watching a movie? The two boys kiss. and nobody punches them. And the door slams shut and the building thumps. And thumps, And so does my heart, just one beat ahead of the song inside.”
  • Aunt Heidi has a boyfriend she has been dating for 7 years. He was seen out with a younger woman, and doesn’t have a good answer for it.
  • Nate says that the girls in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” are “in skimpy clothes for all of the dads in the audience.”
  • A man jokes that he hasn’t worn lipstick since college.
  • Nate sees a woman in a catsuit with “leather boobs.”
  • Freckles tells Nate that he isn’t interested in Aunt Heidi because he dates other men.
  • Nate notices that Freckles has a nice body several times.
  • When a firecracker goes off in the faculty bathroom, a teacher “practically burned his ta-ta off.” Later referenced as “Burning off Mr. Skinner’s hoo-ha.”
  • A mother “thrusts her breasts so hard” into the face of a man on the casting crew that Nate thinks “she’s going to actually break his nose.”
  • A bully at school had “a male porno magazine” in his locker. “Like Playgirl or something ancient.” There’s now a rumor that he had a “secret gay crush” on someone.
  • Libby jokes that she’s going as “a gay dude” for Halloween. Then, after realizing that might be offensive, Libby backtracks and says how much she likes gay people, and that she wasn’t really trying to kiss Nate before he left. Nate says “I’m not really kissing anyone these days, Libby. You know, regardless. I’m not a big kisser.”
  • Freckles “skips and tickles” Heidi “like a fun boyfriend.”
  • Heidi says “Troy only takes me on roadtrips when he’s been seen in bars with women I could have mothered.”
  • A little boy calls Nate “SuperFag” in front of Aunt Heidi and Nate’s mom.

Scary Themes:

  • Libby’s mother has cancer.
  • Nate expects to be mugged, murdered, or sold into child slavery in New York City.
  • A man followed Nate into the bathroom and stood right next to him. Nate was sure the man was going to kill him (he didn’t).
  • The choreographer “looks as is he eats children for lunch and washes them down with the blood of their favorite pet.”
  • Nate wishes he could drown in the bathtub after thinking he is not going to be cast in the musical.

Violence:

  • Handguns and cans of mace are mentioned briefly.
  • The expression “lock and load” is used once.
  • There is a story of a teacher who was killed in a hot air balloon accident.”
  • Libby sings a song about a young girl who gets shot in a war and dies in the arms of her “really hot friend.”
  • Nate says throughout the book that his parents will kill him for what he’s done. “I bet when I get home and Dad chops my head off with an axe, I could go as my dead self for Halloween if he throws my face on ice quickly enough. At least I’ll get a little candy before they bury me.”
  • Nate’s drunk mom grabs him by his wrist and flings him across the room.
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Comments

  1. Matt Roeser says:

    Are you sure? My copy has the word “potty” twice (pg. 43 & 115)

  2. I’m just going to point out that when a clam is separated from the shell it is called “shucking”. There is no double entendre there. If you could learn one thing today…

  3. Matt Roesner,
    I’m doing my best to be accurate so that parents can be informed about the things that offend their beliefs, and some parents have zero tolerance for gross humor of all kinds.
    I’m sure you’re being sarcastic, but I did want to thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read my review and comment.

  4. LMcCJ,
    First of all thank you for reading my review! You are right that oysters are “shucked.” The point of the name of the oyster bar in this book was an entendre, pointed out by Nate’s friend Libby in the story. I personally found it cute, but some parents find words like “shucks” offensive because it can be used as an euphemism. I’m just trying to make these reviews as thorough as possible to help parents make informed decisions for their kids.
    Thanks again for stopping by!

  5. Jennifer! WOW!!! What an amazing review of this book. I loved it! I just subscribed to your blog and will be watching for new reviews! Thank you for giving us parents the opportunity to make informed decisions about the books we purchase. This is THE most thorough review I have ever read and you have acquired a new fan!! Great job!!

    • Trisha,
      Thank you for your kind words – you made my day! :) I’m so glad you found this review helpful. Thanks for subscribing!

  6. I’m concerned about your posting homosexuality as natural as a problem. It’s not. There’s no reason it should be listed as a warning.

    • Hi Amber,
      Thank you for reading my review! First of all, you are more than welcome to overlook my ratings at the beginning of my reviews. They are simply the opinions of one mom. I hope that the rest of the review helps you make informed decisions about what your kids are reading.
      Secondly, I am honestly not interested in debating homosexuality on this blog. I have observed those debates to be fruitless and painful to everyone involved. I addressed this issue in this review purely because I know many parents in the US do have a problem with this issue being presented to children.
      In my home, we have a zero tolerance policy on any sexual references in our kids’ books. They are still young, and we want to be the ones talking with our kids about that stuff.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you decide to stick around and read more of my reviews!

      • I grew up with three gay relatives and a lot of sexuality was explained to us early (my sex ed started at 6) through books, so I find these books to be really helpful to people who are having a hard time finding words to explain hard concepts to children.
        It’s a very thorough review. One of my jobs (when I worked in a group home) was to check all of the books the girls brought. Most of them I had read, but the ones I didn’t had only had the time to do the “three page test” I had to follow the rules of the house, so many of them were upset at my confiscation of the books. I think it’s also how it’s presented. Twilight has a “heroine” who is pretty useless and has no personal identity. The Graceling Realm has strong women who make personal decisions, regardless of what is concerned “normal” or “appropriate”

        • Amber,
          Thanks for responding! It sounds like you had exactly what I hope to give my kids – involved family with an active conversation about your beliefs. That is great!
          It’s hard to navigate the world of chapter books sometimes – the YA genre is exploding with so much new stuff and some is great while some is really poorly written. Each story affects each child in a different way – I’m impressed with anyone who would take the time to preview books for a bunch of teenage girls.
          Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to dialogue. I really appreciate your comments.

Trackbacks

  1. […] by a concerned parent who gave Better Nate Than Ever a thoughtful and thorough review that included an “Extreme Caution” rating because “homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this […]

  2. […] by a concerned parent who gave Better Nate Than Ever a thoughtful and thorough review that included an “Extreme Caution” rating because “homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this […]

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