Behind the Book

Behind the Book: Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER

Contrary to the very popular opinion of my more prominent childhood bullies: Broadway is not for sissies.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was the only kid who’d cut class to read Stephen Sondheim’s unauthorized biography in the library stacks. I was a black sheep, sure, but also a lost one—and I found myself when I found theater. “It gets better” wasn’t part of the lexicon when I was in school, but I somehow knew that it would get better—if only I could get to New York City.

And I got there, arriving a hopelessly hopeful teen, trading college for a shot at the big time. After ten years and five Broadway shows (plus a stint as a Christina Aguilera backup dancer), “it” had definitely gotten better, but it had also gotten . . . familiar. I was in a creative rut.

At age thirty, I landed a job as an associate choreographer on Billy Elliot . The show starred several young boys who alternated in the title role, and they’d grow up quickly from high-pitched Billys to lower-pitched Williams. Thus, the dance team would constantly scour the country, searching for Billy replacements. After a while, these cattle calls would become a blur of shiny showbiz kids.

But then, one day, Billy hopeful #8,420 appeared. The kid who changed my life.

This kid was pudgy, freckled, straight out of a fifties comic strip. When it was time for #8,420 to sing, he stood there with one arm wrenched behind his back. We were accustomed to all kinds of nervous behavior, but this boy was especially quirky. He wasn’t polished or slick. He finished his short song, thanked us, and turned to leave.

That’s when I saw it: the rabbit’s foot.

He was gripping it so tightly, he’d probably rubbed the green dye right into his sweaty palm. And in that strange moment—knowing he’d never be cast in Billy Elliot but that he was the most memorable kid I’d seen in ages—I found my new dream. I wanted to write a story about kids like him, for kids like him.

In the four weeks it took me to write the first draft of Better Nate Than Ever, I became that daydreaming mini-Tim again. I’d wake up at seven every morning, type till my fingers ached the way a dancer’s legs might, then dash to yet another ten-hour rehearsal. I didn’t eat, I didn’t pay bills. It was magic. Rehearsals suddenly crackled with possible plotlines—watching these kids gave me all the inspiration an author could want. And in the process of writing about their dreams, I rewrote my own. Telling stories in a bigger way than I ever could as a dancer.

There was never any doubt that I wanted this book to be for middle schoolers. Because? They’re not jaded. Because they’re still earnest enough to walk into an audition with a rabbit’s foot. And because it’s important to be told, when you need to hear it most, that the thing that might get you picked on in one town might get you paid in another. Imagine!

Better Nate Than Ever was written for anyone who knows that the fastest way to star in your own life story is to dream big. No matter how small you are. (Lucky rabbit’s foot not required.)