The past year for Tim Federle has contained many firsts─including having his debut novel Better Nate Than Ever (S&S, 2013) named a New York Times Notable Children’s Book of 2013, Amazon Best Book of the Year, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. It also received a Lambda Literary Award nomination, a Stonewall Honor and a Golden Kite Fiction Award. On a different note, his cocktail guide Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press, 2013) was voted Cookbook of the Year on Goodreads.
He began 2014 with his second Nate book, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! (S&S, 2014) that features the first boy-on-boy kiss in middle school fiction.
SLJ caught up with the Broadway dancer-turned-author to ask about books, bullying, and kid lit fame.
A lot has happened in the last year since the debut of Better Nate Than Ever. How did your writing career come about?
I’ve always been a storyteller─and some of my middle school teachers, especially on days when I hadn’t done the homework, could confirm that. But, it took me 10 years into my dancing career on Broadway to realize I wanted to actually write down all the silly stuff I was saying backstage. Better Nate Than Ever was specifically inspired by the hilarious kids I worked with during my time at Billy Elliot.
Nate is a talented teen who is gay. Would you call your Nate books “gay-themed”?
I wouldn’t call my books gay-themed—just like I wouldn’t call my life gay-themed. I happen to be gay, and Nate is discovering the same is probably true about himself, especially toward the end of the second book. But, I would sooner call these books—and my life—laugh-themed, Broadway-themed, and Chipotle-themed. Nate definitely knows he’s different, but I wanted to write a middle grade character who didn’t feel awful about that. Being possibly gay is about the tenth thing on his mind—below musical theater and macaroni and cheese.
These books have been called semi-autobiographical. How much of Tim is Nate?
Tim is a lot of Nate. I’m in my 30s now, but I feel that in some very real way, no adult man ever gets much older than 13. At least I didn’t. I still eat cereal for dinner when nobody is watching, and I still use Neutrogena Acne wash.
Which of Nate’s personality traits do you wish the young Tim possessed?
Nate is picked on for loving theater just as often as I was, but the difference is that rather than hang up his tap shoes because of the bullying—which I did for a few years to escape the taunts—Nate doubles down and just tries twice as hard to become who he truly is.
You have mentioned that you were bullied as a child. What advice do you or Nate have for kids facing bullying?
To not listen to the haters, because there will always be haters. This idea that schools can ever be bully-free zones, while admirable, just isn’t sustainable. We have to teach our kids to cope with the reality of a world that isn’t always fair. The way to override cruelty is to find trusted grown ups and close friends—even just one—who love you for who you are. And then turn your back on the jerks.
Without giving too much away, you wrote perhaps the first middle school kiss between two boys. Was that hard to write?
Nate has a lot of firsts in these books. In Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, it’s his first time living away from his parents, first time in a Broadway show, and yes, his first real─and innocent─kiss. Kids know when you’re talking down to them, and they know when you’re writing down to them, too. I always want to tell stories about the way the world really is, in a way that’s both age-appropriate and also, hopefully, liberating for readers who may need to know lightning isn’t going to strike them dead for being who they are. So, no, it wasn’t hard to write a kiss between two teenagers.
Have the Nate books received any criticism because of its gay subplot?
The exception has proven the rule. By and large, the feedback I get from readers of all ages─from coast to coast─is that they find Nate hilarious and inspiring, which is meaningful to me. A handful of schools, out of hundreds of visits, have canceled on me. Sadly, those are often the schools who most need a guest visitor to tell the kids their dreams are every bit as equal as anybody else’s, no matter how they feel inside.
How did you go from writing books for middle school to writing Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist?
My big hope, whether writing for kids or adults, is to make people laugh. Tequila Mockingbird came out of a silly one line email to my agent, Brenda Bowen—“Hey, do you think the Urban Outfitters crowd would go for a literary cocktail guide?” I truly wrote the proposal on a whim. That it went on to win the Goodreads’ Cookbook of the Year—and is spawning an upcoming spinoff: Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist (Running Press, October 2014) [a cocktail boardbook for new parents]—totally surprised me.
Which cocktail from the book is your favorite?
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita for so many reasons.
You do a good number of school visits. Tell us what you do during a typical visit?
I’ve have met over 10,000 kids in the last year alone. My goal is to get kids thinking about big futures. So, at many visits, I get everybody up on their feet, and we do a big Broadway dance audition class, and for larger groups of kids, I give a rah-rah speech and tell my journey, going from picked on teenager to Broadway dancer to debut novelist. And no matter what, we always laugh a lot..
What was the biggest surprise in becoming a popular author of books for kids?
That half the emails I receive are from adult readers who don’t even have kids. Every email starts the same way: “I’m probably the first adult who has written to you, but…”
What next for you and for Nate?
I’m writing a screenplay of Better Nate Than Ever and working on a new series of books for Simon & Schuster called “Theater Kid Chronicles.” And my agent has informed me that she’s requiring me to take a vacation at some point.
More information about Federle’s school visits, including Common Core guides to his novels, can be found at timfederle.com/educators.