Lynn: Opening the pages of Ben Philippe’s debut book, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019) was like opening my own front door to hear the voices of my sons and grandsons. No, they aren’t Black Haitian hockey-loving Canadians like Norris Kaplan but they were/are smart, snarky, and cynical but with a sweet vulnerability and sometimes a little too clever for their own good. Seventeen-year-old Norris’s recently divorced mother has taken a rare tenure-track position in her obscure field at the University of Texas in Austin. Dragged metaphorically kicking and screaming from his home, friends, father and beloved Habs to attend high school in Austin, Norris knows just what to expect from watching American sitcoms: mean brainless cheerleaders, bullying jocks, clueless nerds and loners! Assigned to keep a writing journal in class, Norris records his observation of the “species” in his field guide and his entries are hilarious but also smugly dismissive.
Norris plans to keep his head down, get through the year and get home to Montreal as soon as possible but despite himself, Norris makes a friend, meets a stunning girl, takes a part-time job, and begins to realize it is not all that easy to lump people into neat stereotypes. Could his field observations be wrong?
This was laugh-out-loud funny with spot-on snarky dialog and such a clever premise. The endearing cast of characters was the real highlight of this book and Norris especially stole my heart. He is working so hard at being cynical but Philippe does a stellar job of giving readers revealing glimpses of Norris’s basic sweetness and the vulnerability he works so hard at concealing. As Norris matures through the course of the story, he begins to see beyond his own assumptions and so does the reader’s understanding of the real depth of all the characters. Early on, I settled in, happy to follow the plot of what I thought was going to be a predictable trajectory. But a surprise twist took the story in an unexpected direction. This was still satisfying but it made the book that much more intriguing for me.
Don’t miss this clever “field guide” and stay tuned for Ben Philippe’s next observation of the teen species.
Updated: Want more? Check out this All Things Considered NPR interview with Ben.