The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
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Funny story of immigrant teen facing culture shock in U.S.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

Your attitude determines your experience. Reflection can help you grow.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Norris' parents are open to his wants as well as his needs, and they're willing to make sacrifices for his well-being and happiness. On multiple occasions, they are justifiably very frustrated with him. Each time, they express their own feelings while continuing to act like the adult in the room. In terms of representation, Norris is a Black Haitian French Canadian who makes a diverse group of friends in Austin, including an immigrant Indian family as well as many White kids. Though there are some scenes of racial strife, the setting is a mostly harmonious, multicultural community. And Norris has a gay best friend back home.

Violence

Racial taunts escalate into overly aggressive body checking during a sporting event. There are several verbal arguments.

Sex

There are a handful of kissing and make-out scenes and mention of kids having sex in cars at a prom after-party.

Language

 "Damn," "s--t," and "f--k" appear many times.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Multiple scenes of underage teens getting drunk and humorous scenes about "drunk dialing" and landing in the "drunk tank" of the local jail. A teen is treated with psychotherapy and antidepressants after having taken an overdose of pills.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that in Ben Philippe's The Field Guide to the Northern American Teenager, Norris, a Black teen who's the son of Haitian immigrants to Montreal, moves to Austin, Texas, when his mother lands a teaching job at a university. He promises his mother he'll give Austin his best shot, and she promises he can move back to Montreal if it doesn't work out. Norris keeps a cynical journal about his observations of American teen life, but he begins to build a life despite himself. There are multiple scenes of underage teens getting drunk and humorous scenes about "drunk dialing" and landing in the "drunk tank" of the local jail. There are a handful of kissing and make-out scenes and mention of kids having sex in cars at a prom after-party. A teen gets psychotherapy and antidepressants after having taken an overdose of pills. There are some racial taunts that escalate into overly aggressive body checking during a sporting event, and a couple of verbal arguments. The words "damn," "s--t," and "f--k" appear many times.

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What's the story?

When THE FIELD GUIDE TO THE NORTH AMERICAN TEENAGER begins, Norris, a 14-year-old Black French Canadian, arrives in Austin, Texas, where his mother (who's divorced from Norris' dad) is starting a job as a linguistics professor. His cultural education on U.S. high schools comes from watching his mom's video collection of TV shows and movies from the 1980s and 1990s. His mom has promised they'll go back to Montreal if the transition doesn't work for him -- but he must try. He keeps a notebook of the habits of his schoolmates and teachers as if they were the subjects of an anthropology field study. Soon, despite himself, Norris adjusts to U.S. teen life. He gets a fast food job, makes friends, and pursues romantic interests. His life gets complicated when two different girls become rivals for his attention.

Is it any good?

Humorous and sensitive, this novel captures teen angst. Author Ben Philippe makes artistic choices that make The Field Guide to the North American Teenager a delight. First, his main character is a Black immigrant to the U.S., so his commentary on his experiences with racism can be detached without coming across as dismissive. It allows the author to present topics like "the talk" (that Black parents give children about police abuse and other discrimination) while keeping the central emotional focus on universal themes like social disaster at the prom, parental divorce, and being the new kid at school. Second, the "field guide" structure brings a lot of funny moments, as the reader laughs along with Norris' snarky comments and when his secret thoughts become known to some of his targets.

For this book, Philppe won the 2020 William C. Morris Award for debut YA novel, an annual award given by the the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the theme of fitting in The Field Guide to the North American Teenager. What are the different ways kids and adults try to make their place in Austin?

  • How did the field guide entries help tell the story?

  • What are some of the messages about immigration in The Field Guide to the North American Teenager?

Book details

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