I just finished The Field Guide to the North American Teenager yesterday and I adored it. I finished it in one day because Norris is a character who spoke to me.
Norris Kaplan is clever, cynical, and quite possibly too smart for his own good. A black French Canadian, he knows from watching American sitcoms that those three things don’t bode well when you are moving to Austin, Texas. Plunked into a new high school and sweating a ridiculous amount from the oppressive Texas heat, Norris finds himself cataloging everyone he meets: the Cheerleaders, the Jocks, the Loners, and even the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Making a ton of friends has never been a priority for him, and this way he can at least amuse himself until it’s time to go back to Canada, where he belongs.
Yet, against all odds, those labels soon become actual people to Norris. Be it loner Liam, who makes it his mission to befriend Norris, or Madison the beta cheerleader, who is so nice that it has to be a trap. Not to mention Aarti the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who might, in fact, be a real love interest in the making. He even starts playing actual hockey with these Texans.
But the night of the prom, Norris screws everything up royally. As he tries to pick up the pieces, he realizes it might be time to stop hiding behind his snarky opinions and start living his life—along with the people who have found their way into his heart.
(Disclaimer: I received this free book from Edelweiss. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
I flat out adored this book. From page one I knew I wouldn’t go to bed until I finished reading it because Norris is spectacular. He’s a character I instantly loved. Transplanted from snowy Canada into the depths of warmth in Austin, Texas, Norris hates just about everything. And I feel like Norris spoke to me. He spoke to me in the ways he mouths off to bullies, his quick intellect, and the way he hides his pain. Not only that, but this book has real depth. It’s not just a book about his mistakes, and how he sees beyond his snap judgements. Norris encounters casual racism and the dangers of his actions as a black man.
Diversity: Norris is a black Haitian Canadian, gay SC and Indian SC
So some people are going to find Norris unlikeable. And he is. He’s one of those people who won’t let people get close to him, who uses sarcasm as a defense mechanism, and keeps basically everything close to his chest. But he’s also incredibly relatable because he is so deeply unhappy. He feels so much like an Outsider ever since his feet touch American soil and he is counting down the days until he can return to Canada.
Even though you think, “Well Norris isn’t really trying to be nice to people”, you also think, this is a teen who is in defense mode. It also doesn’t help that Norris makes snap judgements about people and he doesn’t try to see them beyond their labels. This is almost like a Mean Girls meets Norris. But what Philippe does in The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is he makes Norris relatable to us in a way that none of these films or tropes, ever do. The ways the divorce of his parents still hurts him to this day, or the fact that his best friend moving on without him makes him feel not needed, or that being okay with being alone, doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely.
And what I loved is that The Field Guide to the North American Teenager kind of takes elements we’ve seen before, the notebook of thoughts, mean sarcastic outsiders, and manic pixi dream girl elements, and combines them in unseen combinations. It heightens and develops our concept of these stereotypes, forcing us, as readers, to do exactly what Norris struggles with. And it consistently doesn’t allow us to take short cuts.
Not to mention, some of the most emotional scenes come at the ending. When we are confronted with our own mistakes. And the dangers of being a black man. Philippe wants this book to help showcase the variety of people black men are outside of their type casting, stereotypes, and monolith. A black teen who doesn’t necessarily see his blackness, but who can’t escape the ways it effects his realities – just another self-obsessed teenager.
Other things I loved:
- Norris’ relationship with his Mom, Judith, and just in general how amazing his mom is
- Also that his mom has a name and isn’t just some shadowy mom figure. She also has ambitions, love, and emotions
- How much Norris loves hockey and skating – I just got my first pair of skates and I’m in love
- The side characters are nuanced and I almost want books about every single one of them – Liam and Maddie and Aarti!
- Norris is so quirky and clever and I still cannot get over how much I love him
Even though labels have made the world fit into artificially constructed boxes, everyone in this book has hidden depth. They surprise you even till the very end. And Philippe, even at the end, doesn’t allow us to relax into what we think will happen – instead delivering us an ending that is going to be more satisfying and surprising than we ever thought.