Book Review: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

the field guide to the north american teenager via paper trail diary

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe

Norris Kaplan is not a Canadian, not yet an American… he’s somewhere in between, if that. He’s Black (of Haitian immigrant parents), but was born in Quebec (that’s French Canada) and now he’s living in Texas, where all he does is sweat and grimace at his fate. He had friends and a life in Montreal, but his single mother got a job as a professor at the University of Texas (in Austin) and his father has no “room” for him in his new family, so off he went to the South in his junior year of high school. He promised his mom he’d give it a chance, but begrudgingly. When the school guidance counsellor hands him a notebook to jot his thoughts down during his acclimation to American life, Norris uses it to put his classmates into their stereotypes on paper, especially his sworn enemies: jocks and cheerleaders. Norris slowly finds a friend, a coworker, and a sort-of girlfriend, but it isn’t until he screws things up with everyone that he realizes how good his life got in Texas.

Everyone’s got a judgemental bone in their body, big or small, don’t even try to deny it. Norris’s voice taps into that. It’s familiar. He is vulnerable, trying to protect himself from feeling lonely and getting hurt, so he hides behind his notebook and salty snark. Whether you think it funny or annoying or both, he is real, and it is endearing to have this displaced character welcomed into today’s YA. Perhaps I felt more connected to his story as I moved from the States to Canada at age 18 (though of my own decision) and recognized some of the differences that Norris does (Canada barely cares about football, for example). Norris often mentions how what he knows about American high schools are from movies, and it made me think about my high school a lot. The lunch table thing is real, although I assume that happens in places besides the States. I thought his observations were so keenly detailed, especially at the beginning when that’s all he has. He goes through all the typical high school stuff, like bullying:

“It occurred to Norris at that moment that Hairy Armpits probably would never give this moment a second thought, whereas, for Norris, it was already congealing into something rock-hard in his chest. It would definitely be one of those repressed high school wounds that only decades of living on a yacht made of nachos would someday come close to healing.”

I really enjoyed reading along as Norris settled into friendships with an odd duck named Liam and a cheerleader named Maddie. They both had great chemistry with Norris and I have a soft spot for people who understand and notice others when nobody else seems to. I liked being on the ride of Norris’s growth, and the way author Ben Phillippe ironically framed his story to mirror the American movie cliches.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is endearing and entertaining, and proves debut author Ben Philippe has some serious storytelling chops!

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