Tim Federle, who co-wrote the musical “Tuck Everlasting” and the movie “Ferdinand,” knows the territory of being a misunderstood theater kid. As a teenager, he escaped his hometown to come to New York City to pursue a Broadway career. His novel “Better Nate Than Ever” told the story of Nate Foster, an eighth grader who steals his mom’s A.T.M. card and his brother’s fake ID and boards a bus to try out for a Broadway musical version of “E.T.” Next came “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!,” in which Nate lands an ensemble role, moves to New York and prepares for opening night. Now the series comes to an end with NATE EXPECTATIONS (Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $17.99; ages 10 to 14), which tackles what happens after your dream comes true: The show closes after bad reviews. As with his earlier books, Federle skillfully pivots between the comedic commentary and the moving introspection of a boy trying to find his place in a homophobic world.
After experiencing the freedom to be himself — as well as a secret romance with a castmate — Nate Foster has to go back to Jankburg, Pa., “a town that somehow both never knew my name but also hated everything about me.” To make things worse, the high school auditorium is being torn down to build a lacrosse field. Undeterred in his love of the theater, Nate sets out to stage a musical production of “Great Expectations” in the gym, and instead of getting ostracized, he gains fans among students and administrators alike. “Some days you’re a freshman in high school, and though the world is a bubble of suck, inside the bubble you’ve made something rare and beautiful,” Nate observes. Readers will feel reassured that Nate will survive high school and go on to pursue his passion with confidence.
“Zora was bold and honest like a bumblebee asking to nectar on springtime flowers, and loud and fearless like a bobcat,” says 12-year-old Carrie Brown, the narrator of the beautifully written ZORA AND ME: THE CURSED GROUND (Candlewick, 250 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), by T. R. Simon. In this second book in a promised series that imagines the life of the young Zora Neale Hurston, Zora and her friend Carrie solve a murder in their town of Eatonville, Fla., in the early 1900s. Although Eatonville is the first black incorporated town in America, Zora and Carrie are hardly shielded from the racial violence of the post-Reconstruction era. In “Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground,” the two girls learn about the enslaved history of some of their town’s inhabitants and the ongoing legacy of that bloody bondage.
When Zora and Carrie stumble upon an old slave plantation house in 1903, they can hardly imagine a world where people are treated like property. But then two white men ride into town claiming that the land should never have been incorporated into Eatonville. Zora’s father, who is Eatonville’s mayor, is forced to take a stance. “The past is coming for us, isn’t it?” her mother asks. “White men with lynching ropes will hang us from trees here as easily as they did in Alabama. We were foolish to think that there could ever be a safe place, that we could ever get away.” The land in question holds a dark secret, one told in flashbacks from a healer named Old Lady Bronson that slowly connect the past with the present. The flashbacks vividly depict Old Lady Bronson’s life as a young girl when she was taken from Hispaniola to Florida to work on the plantation. The connection between slave times and Zora and Carrie’s world unravels slowly and with well-crafted suspense and a horrifying surprise twist. “History wasn’t just something you read in a book,” Carrie observes. “It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out.”