Book Review: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

Title: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
Author: Ben Philippe
Genres:  Contemporary 
Pages: 372
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: 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.

Review: The buzz around Ben Philippe’s debut novel was catching and everyone was talking about how funny and witty the novel was, so when I saw a copy out in the wild, I decided to buy it. I like witty novels, but for some odd reason, Field Guide to the North American Teenager didn’t click with me. It could have been the mood I was in when I read it, or something, but on the whole I struggled to get through the book. Yes, there were parts where I giggled, but I expected to laugh a lot more than I actually did. 

I’d have to say the reason why I didn’t connect with this novel is that I didn’t quite connect with the main character, Norris. Norris is extremely smart and mature for his age, which makes him not quite fit in with his classmates. Of course, moving to a new country in the middle of the school year doesn’t help matters. However, Norris doesn’t make any real attempt to get to know the students at his school, nor really makes any effort to try to relate to them. All the relationships he does end up forming come from others taking the first steps, not Norris (aside from his crush that is). On the whole I found Norris to be a bit arrogant and it turned me off. I do know that Norris reminded me of a student who was way more intelligent than his classmates, who was a bit arrogant, and that caused issues in my classroom. I think, for me, Norris reminded me of this student, therefore I couldn’t connect with him because Norris tapped into my worry for this student and I couldn’t enjoy the book. 

What I did enjoy about the book was an outsider’s perspective of America. Having been to Austin, Texas, where the novel takes place, I know that it is a progressive city in a state that is not-so-much. I found it humorous that Norris struggled with believing Austin to be progressive. Norris is from Montreal, so I understood his perspective and understood his struggle. I think setting the novel is Texas was genius by Philippe because, as most Americans know, Texas really is whole world and culture of it’s own. And Austin is definitely a mix of American extremes, so dropping Norris in this environment gives both a window and mirror for the reader, allowing us to see ourselves from another perspective, while giggling at the foibles of American culture. 

I did enjoy Philippe’s writing and felt the novel moved at a good pace. Even though I didn’t connect with Norris, I did like many of the other characters, especially Liam, and I look forward to what Philippe writes next.