A budding thespian makes the Broadway leap in Tim Federle's Five, Six Seven, Nate!, but even those whose dreams don't involve sequins, spotlights or Sondheim should appreciate this book's heartfelt and nuanced message about adolescent self-acceptance.
The much-anticipated sequel to 2013's Better Nate Than Ever, Federle's new young adult novel is once again told from the perspective of Nate Foster, a 13-year-old musical theater devotee who runs away from his Pennsylvania hometown to audition for E.T.: The Musical in New York. While Better Nate Than Ever left Nate's Broadway future uncertain, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! finds the plucky tween back in Manhattan, where he's gearing up for an ensemble role in the E.T. musical.
For every Kinky Boots-sized smash on the Great White Way, there's a floundering Big Fish, and the fate of E.T. starts to look precariously like the latter as cast disputes, script revisions and an inexperienced director complicate the show's development ("A new musical is the Holland Tunnel at rush hour during a presidential visit," one dance instructor bemoans). While Better Nate Than Ever could be read as a youthful travelogue to New York City, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! confines the action to dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces that, despite being populated mostly by adults, resemble "a junior high school cafeteria but with more glitter."
Hear Federle talk about Five, Six, Seven, Nate! in the trailer below:
A Broadway veteran himself, Federle doesn't skimp on behind-the-scenes details, structuring Nate episodically with backstage minutiae not seen on Glee. This time, Nate's top adversaries aren't classroom bullies, but a co-star's fearsome stage mother who makes most of the women on Dance Moms look demure, and The Sound of Music Live!-style snark plaguing the show on social media as cast and crew scramble toward opening night.
Federle's prose is breezy, bouncy and enriched with memorable (and tweetable) one-liners, like, "The best thing to do when you've got a lot on your mind is to unload it on somebody else." His unwavering love of the theater is apparent, too, particularly when the titular character quips, "I know Tony stats like my dad knows the Steelers' starting lineup."
In Nate, Federle has created a wise-beyond-his-years hero to which any youngster who has struggled with self-confidence can identify. It isn't a spoiler to say the role Nate assumes by the first E.T. performance isn't the minuscule swing part he initially lands, but even if his journey strikes a familiar chord, it's all in good fun. The character has matured from the wide-eyed Oliver Twist of the first book, and gains the quick wits and tenacity of the Artful Dodger as he navigates his way through every comic mishap.
Still, one divisive plot point will be Nate's first kiss. True to form, Nate provides a droll take on said smooch, calling it "soft and warm, like the inside of a bagel." That he's kissed a boy, specifically, and liked it comes as an afterthought.
It's a sage, if optimistic, choice to keep the experience just as innocent and endearingly awkward as it would be for a young heterosexual protagonist; kudos to Federle for making the moment feel both honest and universal without using its same-sex angle for any particular statement. At a time when many lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning teens are finding greater comfort out of the closet, more middle grade and young adult literature could benefit from this fortitude.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! complements the award-winning Better Nate Than Ever as an inspired coming-of-age tale set amidst the shimmering footlights of Broadway. For young musical theater buffs, this is a novel to read and re-read; tween readers who don't speak in show tune shorthand will nonetheless find Federle's voice quirky, confident and altogether endearing.