Being a Teen=Lack of Control Over Life
Smack in the middle of his junior year of high school, Norris Kaplan has to move from Montreal, Canada to Austin, Texas when his mom secures a professorship at the University of Texas. He is sad and angry, a truly depressed guy. He’d wanted to stay in Montreal with his dad, but dad is concentrating on his second wife and new baby boy. Norris isn’t great at making friends, and is leaving behind the one person who is close to him.
The second Norris’ plane lands, he believes all of his preconceived notions about Austin–and Texas and the states in general–are true. It’s 104 degrees and Norris has a problem with excess sweating. No one in the airport understands the hockey team logo on his shirt. Everything he can see as he and his mother drive away appears bland and supersized.
Norris is the child of Haitian immigrant parents. He worries that being a Black, French Canadian will make him stick out and become an object of ridicule. The notion that he appears exotic to the Texans is immediately reinforced by the admissions officer at school who continues to try to speak French to him although he keeps telling her he speaks English.
Norris has two major coping mechanisms: he jots observations in a notebook he keeps in his pocket (thus the title of the novel), and he makes snarky, even nasty remarks to everyone he meets as a way of getting in the first punch. While this sort of behavior works well in the TV programs he’s seen about America schools, it isn’t earning him any friends in real life.
Each chapter begins with a few of Norris’ notebook observations. He covers jocks, cheerleaders, loners, part-time jobs, parties, flirting and more. His observations are wry and very funny. The thing is–while some ring true, many are unfair, and this will come back to bite him. Hard.
The Austin, Texas Social Hierarchy
When a group of cheerleaders accidentally slams a door into Norris, the alpha girl assumes he is spying on her. Another appears to sympathize with him and a third gets into a major argument, full of boyfriend drama, with the alpha girl. The one who argues–Aarti Puri, is the child of immigrants from India. She is nothing like the other cheerleaders and doesn’t like hanging out with them. She’s into the arts, particularly photography. Norris sees a kindred spirit in this Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a possible future girlfriend. In the sympathetic girl, Madison (Norris knew one of the girls had to be named Madison!) has a connection to Aarti as well as a possible part-time job. He views Madison as a beta cheerleader, one who is kind, meets everyone else’s needs, and doesn’t ask enough for herself.
Finally, Norris meets Liam, a loner who speaks in a monotone. They connect because Liam wants to learn how to play ice hockey and Norris is the only person he can go to. Liam is even more observant than Norris and has more patience with human error. He’s a great foil.
Read The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is full of laughs and wit. It’s great fun to eventually sympathize with all teens in the novel–who each has his or her own charms. I highly recommend this novel.
The author, Ben Philippe, had an interview with NPR that you might want to check out (it’s very short). He said something important about Black male characters, so I’ll add it here:
“I think when it comes to black male characters, there’s often the — I call it the Barack and Trayvon dichotomy, whereas either you’re given someone who’s perfect, who’s almost bigger than life, who’s going to end up becoming President, essentially, or you’re given the tragedy, you’re given all the potential that’s going to get snuffed out from the world. And people say that, you know, Norris doesn’t really have a thing — he’s not this amazing talent or political activist. And that’s exactly what I was aiming for.”
But Norris is witty, deeply-feeling, and he learns to correct his course. So–very much a teenager the reader relates to.
High School Housekeeping: I think readers at every level would enjoy this and come away the better for having read it as it will undoubtedly create empathy. There is a lot of colorful language and as Norris says, he’s the blasphemer in the group. Unless that is a problem, you will love this one.