Thanks to Cameron Crowe, we have a new parenting philosophy around our house. Recently, as a family, we watched We Bought a Zoo, where Matt Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, invokes 20 seconds of courage as a lifestyle mantra. We don’t learn about it until late in the movie when Mee’s mopey son has something to do requiring bravery. He has to tell a girl how is feeling, he has to tell her that he loves her. And he has to do it in the rain because it’s a Cameron Crowe movie, so of course there is rain and kissing and maybe some Bob Dylan.
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” –Benjamin Mee
We come to learn that this 20 seconds of bravery thing has informed a whole lot of Benjamin’s life, enabling him at first to make a writing career of the risk-taking antics he reports on for his local paper. And later, in the wake of his young wife’s death and as a way of setting about saving of his family, he presumably invokes these words again in the purchasing of said zoo.
Later that night, when my own child was scared to go back into the dark kitchen on her own to retrieve something she had forgotten, I gave it a try. It didn’t work, of course, this 20 seconds of courage argument. Because my children can go careening down driveways on skateboards they have no mastery of, but they cannot–will not–walk into a dark room in our own house on their own. Not ever.
That said, I started thinking about all the books for kids about bravery and how they are trying so hard to teach something—as if telling someone over and over to be brave is enough. I realized, watching that movie, and then reading the exhilarating and somehow new Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle—that in order to be brave, you must have something big to be brave for—something that means more to you than protecting yourself. Something worth taking risks for. Riding a skateboard in the case of my children, riding a bus from Jankburg, PA to midtown Manhattan in the case of Nate Foster—my new hero.
There is something to be said for a 13-year-old boy who by school-day is lost in a sea of middle of Pennsylvania athletes but who finds himself—loves himself even—belting out show tunes in the dark and running improv scenes with his best friend, Libby. She is his lifeline this Libby, and if we are lucky, we’ve all had one. If we’re really lucky, we still do.
But Nate Foster—he is unlike today’s middle grade heroes. He does not battle dragons or wayward wizards, he doesn’t even go up against his larger-than-life bully of a big brother (but nor does begrudge him his athletic prowess). He simply knows his place, knows how to hide his Christian-boot-camp bruises to protect himself from the more stinging hatred of the brother who would only ever act the part by way of blackmail.
All of this is to say that it takes a whole lot of something for a kid to get on a bus at night and head to the big city, where his uniqueness, his resourcefulness will be put to some use. Where his commitment to getting the hell out of a place that would surely suck it all out of him eventually and land him a job in the family floral business, 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh will pay off. Where the rest of his life awaits him. It takes something indeed.
As it turns out, we’re talking about roughly 20 seconds of courage.
Again and again, he takes the city by storm in small ways, in 20 second bursts of funny, of courage and gumption, and again, commitment. Because he believes in himself, wants something so bad he’s willing to risk it all, to be truly brave, to get it. Even his father—the least brave character in the book–thinks so.
There is so much to love about this book—it’s a journey book, really. It’s about destiny, but it’s funny (so crazy funny and weird) and heartbreaking all the while. And there are no wizards or lightning bolts here. But Nate Foster might as well have been living under the stairs, he might as well have been given an acceptance letter to a school for people just like him.
And Libby and Aunt Heidi and Freckles—all people so well drawn you will wish they were yours—might as well have stood on a street corner deciding the best way to rescue this hero out of a small and dark place and into the big, bright something else (grown-ups in Halloween costumes! Well-lit drug stores! boys kissing boys!).
Nate Foster has a wizardry in this place called Manhattan (he has it in Queens even), but no wand–proving you don’t need actual sorcery to succeed in middle grade fiction. You just need to be fighting for something.
I left Pennsylvania once, too–and I knocked the mirror off the city bus with my u-haul the minute I arrived in midtown Manhattan. And yes, I think it took about 20 seconds to hit the gas pedal again and carry on—knees shaking—toward the rest of my life.