I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW: Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle

Welcome to I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW, where I get all gross and cutesy about a book I am totally crushing on. I won’t summarize the book for you, because that’s boring and I don’t like being bored. Instead, I give you an excerpt that I feel really sums up how rad I think the book is.

Today, I’m going to talk about Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. If we’ve met, then I’ve already told you how crazy I am about this book. First of all, it’s OOoooh, on the LGBTQ tip (That’s a TLC reference, kids!), which is unusual when we’re dealing with kid’s middle grade chapter books (not that LGBTQ  kid’s chapter books don’t exist. I’m very grateful for titles like Drama and The Popularity Papers). Our protagonist Nate (I don’t want kids, but I’d adopt Nate in a heartbeat. He’s the best), doesn’t identify as gay (yet). Rather, he calls himself “undecided”. Why does this make Better Nate than Ever an LGBTQ title? It absolutely speaks to the gay experience. Though kids are coming out of the closet earlier than ever these days, many kids end up grappling with labeling their sexual identities (some never end up labeling their sexuality or gender at all, which is absolutely a valid choice). Nate is one of these kids. He gets bullied at school and called anti-gay slurs. He unabashedly loves musicals. He finds solace in knowing that there are out gay men thriving in New York City. Now, none of these characteristics necessarily add up to “gay”, but with Nate, you’ve just got a feeling. I don’t know. You read it. You let me know if it speaks to the LGBTQ experience. It does for me.

As a proud and obnoxious New Yorker, I love Nate’s sense of wonder, fear, and hope when he experiences the city for the first time. Federle’s version of NYC is endearing and lovely and maybe just a little scary. But it’s full of promise. Everything might not be perfect now, but it’s going to get way better for Nate. His future looks pretty bright.

This is my absolute favorite part of this totally hilarious and heart-warming debut novel by Tim Federle. Thirteen year old Nate’s on the way to an oyster bar called Aw Shucks (get it?), when something catches his eye:


A man ahead of me is riding an electric scooter (a grown-up is!), and I follow him, mesmerized, and stop just as he’s going into a loud, thumping building with shaded-out windows. Another man, twice the size of scooter guy, guards the door. He’s in a T-shirt (a T-shirt in October!) and asking to see the scooter guy’s ID. And when the door opens, electric lights paints the walls a garish,  thrilling pink…

At first I think there’s some kind of emergency inside the thumping building. Everyone’s hands are in the air, and the music doesn’t sound like music at all, it sounds like a public service announcement played on fast forward, with sirens and some kind of pumping bass drum underneath it. But a passing ceiling strobe washes over a young guy’s face. He’s, what, five years older than me? Ten? The guy is surrounded by other people his age, all pulsing against each other, and my initial instinct is to yell, “Somebody help!” In my experience, that many people encircling another guy usually ends in a trip to the nurse’s office or worse, to the hospital for stitches.

(This happened once–I was singing “Phantom of the Opera” in the school bathroom, after Libby rented the movie. I thought nobody else was in the stalls, but turns out somebody was taking a two and started audio-recording me on his phone, and he posted it online and I got razzed for months: the Faggot of the Opera. The kid elbowed my head on his way out of the stall. He didn’t wash his hands after, by the way; it is a fundamental fact that bullies don’t wash their hands. And my lip split so badly, the nurse sent me to the hospital… Four stitches that day, not even a big, impressive number. Not even thirteen stitches, enough that I could have mumbled to my dad: “You shoulda seen the other sixth grader.”)

But enough about the old me.

Here I am now, holding my bag, standing on the sidewalk just past Houston on Lafayette. The fogged-glass door to the club gets stuck in the wind, and the security guard is deep into a conversation on his cell phone, and I gain this perfect portal into a world I’m not even allowed into, not for so many years. For forever.

A world where guys who look like me and probably liked the Phantom movie, too, can dance next to other guys who probably liked Phantom and not get threatened or assaulted.

And this one young guy I’m looking at, who’s modeling an underbite just like mine, and a little earring? 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. And just when I gasp, when I see a black guy with big puffy hair coming at him, the security guard hangs up and 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. Two boys kiss.

And nobody punches them.

And the door slams and the building thumps. And thumps. And so does my heart, just one beat ahead of the song inside.

~Better Nate than Ever, by Tim Federle, pgs. 191-193.

Are you dying? Are you kvelling? Is your cold, cold heart exploding with joy? Mine is.

I adore a character that I can really root for, and Nate is this character. You can’t help but want only the best for him. He’s so damn witty and clever, in the way that ostracized kids often end up being. I love that he and his bestie Libby don’t curse. Instead, they drop the name of a failed Broadway show (“‘Oh my God,’ I say. Holy Cats! (Cats wasn’t technically a flop, but Libby says it was, artistically, so it’s on our list of alternate swears” (p. 74) )

I hope I’ve convinced you to take a look at Better Nate than Ever. If not, you’re clearly a bad and boring person. OK, OK. I’ll end with my favorite joke from the book. If this doesn’t make you want to read it, I got nothing. I’m out.

So remember when I said that Nate was on his way to a restaurant called Aw Shucks? Well, his Aunt Heidi works there. There’s even a cocktail named after her, which Nate is curious about:

“What does it taste like?” I say.

“Regret and a dusty womb and a little splash of orange juice,” she says.

(p. 119)

LULZ. I can’t even with this book. I can’t. Even.

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

6 thoughts on “I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW: Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle

  1. Re: Nate’s “undecided”ness, it struck me as the kind of glib thing someone who is “pretty sure but not quite ready to say it” might say. It bugged me a little at first (I was thinking, if you’re not going to say one way or another, why say anything at all?), but as the book went on, I understood the importance of it. And it’s clear as time goes on that Nate is identifying very strongly with the gay people and elements of gay culture he has discovered in NYC — so even if he’s not ready to date or label himself, he’s finally finding himself reflected in the world, finally feeling at home. Yeah, I think for many LGBTQ people that’s a pretty huge big part of the coming out process. If he were asked at the end of the book, Nate still might insist that he’s undecided, but I bet he would pause a little longer before he answered. 🙂

    1. Thanks for weighing in. I agree that this is something that Nate is still thinking about. It’s important to remember that Nate is only 13 and from a small town. He might need time or a change of scenery to really come out. “Finding himself reflected in the world” is a great way to put how Nate feels in NYC. I have high hopes for Nate.

  2. I’m reading for YALSA’s BFYA committee and had this one on hold at the library when I read your post. It came in and I read the whole thing in one laughter-filled sitting today. I adore Nate. And I can totally see the theatre-loving kids at my middle school loving this book. The jacket says “ages 9-13,” but I feel like 7th and 8th graders who are Nate’s age will identify with his struggles of being picked on for being different and his obsession with theatre. And I kind of loved that Nate was 13 and didn’t feel like he had to declare himself one thing or another in terms of his sexual preference. It’s his identity, and he should be allowed to take whatever time he needs and have whatever experiences he needs to figure it all out/define himself to others.

    1. I’m glad this book is getting lots of recognition. It deserves it.
      It could totally hit the younger end of the YA spectrum.
      I also feel like Nate is entitled to take as much time as he wants to label himself or not. ❤

  3. I didn’t want to read your post before I finished the book, but OMG, wow. Also, that same part you quote – where he sees the guys kiss, and the music is thumping, and he suddenly can see a future where it is OK to be hum (maybe that’s just me projecting, but whatever) – I reread it three times.

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