By Christian DuChateau, CNN
(CNN) — Author Tim Federle has just wrapped a long day at the Atlanta Junior Theater festival, working with several thousand boys and girls who dream of stardom on the Broadway stage. Count these kids as lucky; they’ve found the perfect mentor.
Federle has danced in several big Broadway shows and a Super Bowl halftime show and worked as a choreographer with the young dancers of the hit musical “Billy Elliot,” and now he’s written his first novel, “Better Nate Than Ever.”
Despite his long day, an energetic Federle says, “I think I was always a kid with his head in the clouds,” which is appropriate since his book is about dreaming big.
In his novel, Nate Foster is a teenager who loves musical theater. Feeling a bit like an outsider at school, he escapes small-town Pennsylvania and hops a bus to New York, where he hopes to land a part in “E.T.: The Musical” and get back home before his parents find out.
The story is full of humor, a positive message and some Broadway insider moments. The book bears more than a passing resemblance to Federle’s own life, but he says, “For legal purposes, enough is different that I don’t think my mom is going to sue me.”
For Nate and for Federle, a love of musical theater is what sets them apart from their classmates, but it’s also their life-saver.
“Musicals felt like a place where I could express myself in a safe way, even if my feelings were a little bit too big for school or home. It was the one place I really felt like, there’s lights, there’s scenery, and finally everything around me feels as big as my dreams,” Federle said.
Whether it’s musical theater, sports or academics, Federle encourages young people to find that thing that makes them unique and hold on to it, because it could very well be their ticket to greatness and success as an adult.
“I think so often when you’re a kid, we mellow out those more interesting edges in order to coast through middle school quietly. By the time you get to high school, you’re left asking, who the heck am I? I would encourage kids to try and figure out the thing that sets you apart, not publicly but that you’re passionate about internally.”
Federle hopes readers find “Nate” especially relevant in a day where many kids who want to perform on stage are bullied or picked on for being different.
“Every time I think we’ve gotten past the point where it’s weird to be a boy who performs, a girl who doesn’t quite fit in, I turn on the news, and I see another tragic story of a kid who couldn’t quite face what it felt to be alive amidst a group of kids who just didn’t get them or wouldn’t leave them alone. That tells me we can never have enough voices and mentors and stories.”
While Federle ultimately made his Broadway dreams come true, after 10 years performing on stage, he found himself closing in on his 30th birthday and feeling like he was stuck in a creative rut. He thought about writing a novel but wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge.
It was his work as a choreographer on “Billy Elliot,” preparing young performers for a starring role on Broadway, that helped him conquer his own fears.
“Here I was about to turn 30, telling these kids to face their greatest fear and go out on stage for more than a thousand people who had all paid to see them play the title role in a Broadway show, and I wasn’t facing my own fear, which was to try writing.”
Federle made a vow a week before he turned 30 to write a novel. Thirty days later, he had his first draft of “Better Nate Than Ever.” He calls the day he finished the book “the best day of my life.”
Now critics are raving about “Nate.” Kids love it, and even adults are approaching Federle.
“Adults are saying to me, ‘oh, my gosh, I remember what it was like,’ and it’s actually inspired a few to say things like, ‘I’m going to take up racquetball again,’ random stuff that has nothing to do with musicals.”
Readers who are fans of TV shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “Glee” might enjoy “Better Nate Than Ever.” Some may even read it looking for career tips.
Federle says desire, talent and hard work are all part of the equation, but what he really wants readers to take away from his book is to dream big, be brave and hold on to hope.
“It’s really about putting yourself out there. Every time you leave the stage, you’re thinking, ‘was that as good as I hoped it was, or was that as bad as I hope it wasn’t?’ The amazing thing that every artist shares is, in a world where fear is huge, hope is just a little bit bigger.”