by Shanna Bernier
I have been a teenager and I have worked with lots of teenagers, someday I will parent teenagers. They are weird creatures. The more time I spend with them, the more they astound and confound me. During your adolescence your brain is still growing, specifically your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for our ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, to solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part of the brain continue into early adulthood. A teen knows more than they have ever known before, and that is exciting, but their capacities for empathy and impulse control are still developing. I once had a colleague who described 9th graders as “almost people”: not to imply that they didn’t require the rights and respect that human beings deserve but that the ages between thirteen and twenty can be deceiving. Sometimes teens are so wise and moving and say exactly the right thing, and other times they are ridiculous and make terrible choices, not only for themselves but for others around them. The volatile emotions that hormonal fluctuations and major life-stage experiences evoke are also mind-blowing. Toddlers get a lot of credit for the expression of their massive feelings in the form of a tantrum on the floor of the shopping centre but a teenage tantrum might involve human lives trapped inside a moving vehicle. Suffice to say, teenagers are interesting. It is no wonder, then, that a whole genre of books has been devoted to this particular stage of life.
Young Adult literature, or YA— which I have explored in this column before— is centred on teens and young adults. They are the protagonists and, presumably, also the target readers (although plenty of YA lit is read by plain old adults who might be long past the Y for young stage, and that is just fine in my opinion). Novels geared towards the young are not a new phenomenon but as any frequenter of libraries and bookstores might have noticed, it is a market which has grown a lot in the past few decades.
The book I wish to discuss today fits into this genre, but it goes one step further and more literally explores the teenage condition. It does this not through the lenses of tragedy, science fiction or magical adventure but rather though the mundane struggles of a clever but awkward boy analysing the stereotypical teenage roles in a large American high school in the style of a naturalist’s field notes. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is Ben Philippe’s debut novel. It tells the story of Norris Kaplan, a high school student transplanted from his Montreal home when his single mother gets a teaching gig in Austin, Texas. He is forced to move to an enormous American high school, where being French-speaking, Canadian and black make him stand out in threefold undesirable ways. Norris is smart but not very good at making friends, and he engages in a sort of self-sabotaging practice of mocking every aspect of the culture of high school and adolescence, as typically portrayed in sitcoms and teen movies. Despite this, he forms relationships throughout the book. He learns a lot about people. They are not as simple and easily transformed into tropes and stereotypes as he expects. He comes to care about some of the people he meets, and has to work hard to repair damaged friendships when his snarky and tactless judgements come to light. The book deals with a lot of the issues, both light and heavy, many teens navigate in their daily lives, including friendships, crushes, school demands, future prospects for career and education, and sexuality. Norris’ character also has to struggle with being a visible minority in a particularly white community, as well as the pressures faced by being the child of immigrants, to succeed and have a “better life” than his parents. This book delves into all of these topics with curiosity and grace. As I read this book I felt real insight into a life very different from my own. Woven gracefully throughout this novel is a constant stream of humor and wit. This book is indeed laugh-out-loud funny, causing numerous stifled giggles as I read it in bed late at night.
Of special note to me as I read the acknowledgments, the author came to Canada from Haiti during his own childhood and now resides in New York City after being raised in Montreal. I found it pleasing to note that the first place he lived with his family upon arrival in Quebec was Sherbrooke.