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Multitalented Tim Federle talks about the importance of theater kids, the right way to spell Barbra, and the real-life inspiration for his beloved Nate series.
“I guess the Nate books are a way of me trying to redo my life and give myself advice. No, you might not ever use algebra on Broadway, Tim, but some different part of your brain will be ignited if you apply yourself just 15 percent more.”
In 2013, young Broadway actor, dancer, and singer Tim Federle burst onto the kidlit scene with his debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever(2013), the story of young Nate, who runs away from his Pennsylvania hometown to try out for a part in a Broadway show, E. T.: The Musical. The book was a hit, named a Stonewall Book Award Honor Book and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Its sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, appeared in 2014, also to great acclaim and a Lambda Literary Award.
Since then, Federle has published books for young adults (The Great American Whatever, 2016) and adults (a series of literary-themed cocktail recipe books and a self-help title); penned the libretto for the Broadway adaptation of Tuck Everlasting; and written the screenplay for the animated film Ferdinand.
Federle’s work is popular with young readers as well as critics. His books offer theater kids insider details about shows, their stars, and the biz in general. Nate’s burgeoning awareness and acceptance of his sexual orientation is handled with sensitivity and grace, which is reassuring for young teens going through similar awakenings. And Nate’s sense of humor and general snarkiness in the face of middle- and high-school social drama strike a universal chord. Nate Expectations (2018) marks Federle’s return to middle-grade fiction, and we spoke with him recently about this book.
WEISMAN: Nate Expectations is such a pleasure—a chance to catch up with our favorite teen thespian! It’s been four years since the last Nate book; what prompted your return to this series?
FEDERLE: Thanks so much for saying that. Since the last Nate book came out, I got pulled outside the book world into some other projects, but I was receiving enough emails from readers asking for a third—not to mention increasing, but loving, pressure from my editor, David Gale, to deliver a new book—that I decided to revisit Nate’s world one more time.
WEISMAN: Early on in Nate Expectations, you make the point that although theater kids might be considered weird in their hometowns, when they all get together, they become the normal kids. This is so reassuring. Can you comment about your own experiences as a theater kid?
FEDERLE: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the nineties. My one outlet, every day, where I felt like I could be myself, was the theater classes I took after school. I felt like a total alien from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then from 2:45 till 5, I had my community. I lived for those hours, and I still do. You gotta find your people.
WEISMAN: Nate tells readers that sometimes you have to leave your hometown in order to feel at home. And yet, Nate makes a pretty successful return to Jankburg, PA. What were you hoping readers would take away from this?
FEDERLE: Ever since the first Nate book came out, in 2013, I think there have been signs of a growing acceptance and even embrace of people of all stripes. (We’ve still got a long way to go.) I wanted to write the book from the point of view of a kid who dreaded returning to a place he associates with the scars of the past, only to find that his school celebrates the fact that he went away and “made it big.”
WEISMAN: Humor can be difficult to get just right, and yet in your books, it seems to flow so naturally. Does humor just come to you, perfectly phrased and timed?
FEDERLE: That’s really nice of you to say. I was always a wisecracker, mostly to deflect insults and put-downs from the slightly-taller-than-me kids who haunted my middle-school years. I use humor in life and on the page to try to eliminate 10 percent of despair from a world that can feel very unfair.
WEISMAN: One of the things you do so beautifully in this series is bringing Nate out—first to himself, then to friends, and finally to his parents. The scene in which Nate’s dad realizes he is gay is quite dramatic, but it’s also touching and ultimately very hopeful. Can you talk about the genesis of this scene?
FEDERLE: This is a scene very much not pulled from my real life—when I moved to New York as a teenager, and danced at Radio City, and had my first serious boyfriend, I held my breath, came out to my parents, and got hugs. (A miracle then.) For Nate, I didn’t want to do the tragic gay narrative that both reflects a lot of real-life experiences people face but can also feel less than inspirational. So I wanted to write a dad who struggled with understanding his son but still felt like: Look, he’s my kid. So I’m going to do my best, even if I don’t always have the vocabulary.
WEISMAN: Another real pleasure of this series is the insider details about New York and the theater scene: mentions of Rent and Hamilton as well as nods to Barbra, Bernadette, and Patti. What kinds of reader responses do you get from current theater kids?
FEDERLE: The most important thing in the world is that you spelled Barbra right, so thank you. I get all sorts of responses, from theater kids of all ages, from Instagram to Twitter to very touching letters from parents who say, “Thank you for writing a superhero who doesn’t wear a cape.” (Those always make me cry.) I find that the more specific the theater reference, the more “niche” the audience, the more special a story feels to people. Awkward is the new awesome, and I sort of truly believe that theater kids will save us all.
WEISMAN: Recently you wrote the libretto for Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting, as well as the screenplay for the movie Ferdinand. And you have two upcoming projects: Foster and High School Musical. Are there similarities in your writing process for these various forms? Is one easier or more natural?
FEDERLE: The similarities are that I guess I try to approach everything with a 50-50 dose of humanity and levity. Books are very solitary. Movies and TV and theater are the exact opposite—endless notes and collaboration. Switching back and forth varies the landscape of the day. I count my lucky stars that I get to do both.
WEISMAN: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention your Twitter feed (@TimFederle). It’s such a great mix of jokes, truisms, and reassurance. You seem to use it as a springboard for new creative efforts. Am I wrong?
FEDERLE: Not wrong! In fact, I’ve crowdsourced the punny cocktail titles for many of my ridiculous drinks books, online. The upside of Twitter is the collective brain that can help you crack a concept.
WEISMAN: Mr. English is a really nuanced adult character who challenges Nate, pointing him in a positive direction and bringing the whole series full circle. Can you talk about this ending?
FEDERLE: If it weren’t for the many mentors in my life, including a guidance counselor and multiple theater teachers, I’m not sure if I would have survived adolescence. My best mentors pushed me to be a better person, not just a better dancer. They taught me to handwrite thank-you cards to casting directors, to applaud for the person who gets the part you want, to get up after you’ve been rejected or cut from an audition. I wanted Nate to have a tough-love moment with a teacher who saw his spark but knew he could fall into the class-clown trap that I did (I graduated high school with a 2.8 GPA and didn’t go to college). I guess the Nate books are a way of me trying to redo my life and give myself advice. No, you might not ever use algebra on Broadway, Tim, but some different part of your brain will be ignited if you apply yourself just 15 percent more.
WEISMAN: It’s wonderful to see more of Libby in Nate Expectations, but Ben is the character who really intrigues me. You’ve left a lot of unanswered questions about him . . . maybe on purpose? Might we someday see a companion title that fills in his story?
FEDERLE: That is a very good idea, but don’t mention it to my editor, because he finally stopped hounding me for first drafts.
Better Nate Than Ever. 2013. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781442446892). Gr. 5–8.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! 2014. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781442446939). Gr. 5–8.
The Great American Whatever. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481404099). Gr. 9–12.
Nate Expectations. 2018. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481404129). Gr. 6–9.
Tommy Can’t Stop. 2015. Disney/Hyperion, $16.99 (9781423169178). K–Gr. 3.
All’s Faire in Middle School. By Victoria Jamieson. Illus. by the author. 2017. Dial, $20.99 (9780525429982). Gr. 4–7.
Eleven-year-old Imogene, who has always been homeschooled by her Renaissance faire performer parents, finds her own acting skills come in handy when she decides to enroll in public middle school. A graphic novel not to be missed.
The Diamond of Drury Lane. By Julia Golding. 2009. Square Fish, $12.99 (9780312561239). Gr. 6–9.
In 1790s London, orphan Catherine “Cat” Royal lives at the Drury Lane Theatre, where she vows to keep safe a diamond hidden on site by the theater’s owner. Three sequels also feature Cat and the Drury.
Drama. By Raina Telgemeier. Illus. by the author. 2012. Scholastic/Graphix, $24.99 (9780545326988). Gr. 5–9.
In this graphic novel, Callie serves on the stage crew for her middle-school production of Moon over Mississippi and discovers that relationships and drama abound, both onstage and off.
Jack and Louisa: Act 1. By Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead. 2015. Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99 (9780448478395). Gr. 4–8.
When Jack’s voice changes, he’s forced to leave the New York City stage for the Ohio suburbs. Luckily, his next-door neighbor is musical theater nerd Louisa, and auditions for the community theater production of Into the Woods are coming up.
King of Shadows. By Susan Cooper. 2001. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $7.99 (9780689844454). Gr. 5–9.
Nat Field, rehearsing for a play to be staged at a contemporary replica of London’s Globe Theatre, finds himself transported back to 1599, where Shakespeare coaches him at the original Globe.
The Marvels. By Brian Selznick. Illus. by the author. 2015. Scholastic, $32.99 (9780545448680). Gr. 5–8.
In 1766, Billy Marvel founds a family of actors that flourishes in London until 1900. Almost 100 years later, Joseph Jervis runs away from home and seeks refuge with his uncle at Marvel House, where the home’s portraits and ghosts fascinate him.
Shakespeare Stealer. By Gary Blackwood. 2000. Puffin, $8.99 (9780141305950).
A sixteenth-century orphan boy is ordered to steal the script of Hamlet, and instead discovers the meaning of friendship and loyalty. See also Shakespeare’s Scribe (2000) and Shakespeare’s Spy (2003).
Short. By Holly Sloan Goldberg. 2017. Dial, $16.99 (9780399186219). Gr. 4–6.
Middle-school student Julia is cast as a Munchkin and a winged monkey in a summer production of The Wizard of Oz, and she finds that, for once, being short plays to her advantage.
Stagestruck: Curtain Up. By Lisa Fiedler and Anya Wallach. 2015. Sleeping Bear, $11.99 (9781585369232). Gr. 4–7.
Disappointed that her middle school doesn’t have a drama club, Anya teams up with Austin and her younger sister to put on an all-kids musical production.
Kay Weisman reviews for Booklist magazine.
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