The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
Balzer + Bray
January 8, 2019
Norris Kaplan is about to enter his worst nightmare. He’s moving from his home in Montreal, Quebec to Austin, Texas. He’s leaving behind his best friend and his favourite sport (hockey, of course) and entering the land of heatwaves and Longhorns. But this move is an important opportunity for his mom (who is amazing by the way) and he promised her he would genuinely try to make it work. So despite all his reservations, he finds himself in a new, gigantic high school full of every teenage stereotype you can think of — Cheerleaders, Jocks, and even a mysterious girl he’s desperate to get to know.
It’s great to see a voice like Norris’s join the landscape of YA contemporary fiction. He isn’t like the typical male characters you find in the genre and doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. In fact, in many ways, he’s a walking contradiction. He’s funny but can be hurtful. He’s lonely but he pushes people away. He’s clever but constantly puts his foot in his mouth. I appreciate that Philippe didn’t try and sugarcoat Norris’s flaws. His less charitable characteristics are just as much a part of him as everything else, and the result is a well rounded and nuanced character that you can’t help but like. He may be bitter and angry but at his core, he still has a good heart (although I admit I may be a bit biased here as a fellow Habs fan).
Despite his best efforts and some fabulous sass, Norris does eventually make some friends in Austin and each of these characters are nuanced in their own way. Madison isn’t just a cheerleader, Aarti isn’t just a manic pixie dream girl. And as Norris learns that people aren’t walking stereotypes the reader gets to know them as well. Even the parents get some fair representation in Field Guide. They’re not conveniently pushed out of the picture. All their parents are quite different but they are all present and have a significant impact on their children’s lives.
There’s no cut and dry ending in this book, no happily ever after, but there is something more realistic. Norris manages to find pieces of home in a place that was originally so foreign to him. He finds friends (despite his best efforts) and even a hockey team to play with. And part of what made that discovery ring true was the real sense of place Field Guide has. I’ve been to Austin before as a tourist, but it really came to life in a new way while reading this novel. It wasn’t just the highlights, the broad strokes of a town. There were so many little details that made it feel like a real, lived-in community. Like the Bone Yard, the family restaurant Norris works at, which reminded me of the family-run pizzeria I worked at in my hometown when I was younger.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager was an enjoyable read from beginning to end. It is a book about not judging a person or a place by its cover or giving into your first impression. It’s nice to find a book that not only has such a positive, heartwarming message but can also make you snort with laughter along the way.