When I first started reading The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, I didn’t expect much from it. I was wrong. So, so, so wrong. It’s an amazing book but before I start telling you exactly why, let me tell you what it’s about.
Norris Kaplan is a Black kid from Montreal and he is moving to Austin, Texas. Being an only child of divorced parents, living with his dad’s new family is not an option. And Judith (immigrant, professor, all-around cool mom), doesn’t have many options when it comes to a job. So Texas it is. Norris knows he will hate it. If you ignore the fact that it is TEXAS we’re talking about (and the tiny little detail of Norris’s skin colour), there’s the heat, the lack of hockey, and perhaps even more glaring than the Texas sun, his lack of friends.
Norris promises his mom that he will try. And trying means reigning in his sarcastic and often caustic tongue, limiting his thoughts to the pages of his counsellor-given notebook. Enter: Maddie, kind (?) cheerleader, Liam, budding hockey enthusiast (rich, too), Aarti, beautiful and witty photographer (Norris is in love). Even Patrick “Hairy Armpits”, school bully, is given a chance in Norris’s new Texan life.
But then things start to go awry (see: Norris’s inability to keep his mouth shut and general tendency to be a jerk) and soon he has as many enemies as friends. Seems like his sweat glands had the right idea… Texas isn’t the right place for him and might never be.
I know what you’re thinking. This is just another new-kid-finds-his-tribe type of book. And it is, (kind of), but not so cliched. (arrogant Black French Canadian protagonist might have given that away.) There are the usual party scenes, and quirky date scenes, of course, but there are also other more poignant plot lines. Norris’s relationship with his parents, for example, the complexity of which I loved. There’s also discussions about depression, racism, and what it means to be yourself. Best of all, there’s no preachiness in the book, or lines stolen from a therapy/parenting book. The characters feel real, and they act like real, flawed teenagers. The wittiness of the dialogue alone is a feat. Norris’s character development is WONDERFUL and gosh, this book really is a feel-good story that will break your heart and make it whole again.
Alas, I am but a judgemental critic and The Field Guide to the North American Teenager gets a mark shy of a 100: 9/10. Why? The chapter headings (you’ll have to read the book to understand) were off-putting and a hassle. There were also some stereotypes in the book I could have done without (see: Indian girl with strict parents, Black absentee dad) but the plot lines did okay with them in the end.
Overall, this is a book I would recommend to everyone, and if you’re looking for your next read, you’ve just found it. (P.S. Isn’t the cover just GORGEOUS?)