'Field Guide To The North American Teenager' Taps Into The Raw Anxiety Of Adolescence

Jan 21, 2019
Originally published on January 24, 2019 12:08 pm

Ben Philippe's new novel The Field Guide to the North American Teenager takes readers right to the eye of the storm.

"When you're a teenager, that's the age where you feel everything to the absolute highest, right?" Philippe says. "So you're not just like, 'oh yeah, my relationship is hitting kind of a weird spot.' It's like, 'The world is crumbling and screw your casserole mom and nothing makes sense and I'm just going to sob in a stairwell!'"

Field Guide's protagonist is Norris Kaplan. He's a hockey-loving, black French Canadian kid who's a snarky, skeptical fish out of water in his new Austin, Texas high school. And though Philippe grew up in Canada, his life is reflected in a lot of Norris' experiences. "On the one hand, Norris has a very very thick outer shell, he's very much trying to attack first, because he just assumes that moving to Texas, coming into the middle of the year, that people are going to attack him. He's black, he's French, he's Canadian, he has an accent that's probably similar to mine, so he has his guard up."


Interview Highlights

On Norris's attitude

It's not a trope, but I remember reading so many YA books where the protagonist is just mean and acerbic, and sort of like off-putting. And for some reason, everyone just flocks to them. And in the real world, that's not really how it goes ... if you push people away, most of the time they just leave. And I wanted to start Norris at his brattiest, and sort of have him come to that lesson.

On the movies and TV that influenced this book

I'm French, I come from a French-speaking household ... so I basically kind of learned English watching The WB ... that might explain a lot. - Ben Philippe

Those [chapter] headers come from years of soaking up America through the prism of teenage movies. Through seeing, you know, Ten Things I Hate About You, Bring it On, all those wide tropes of high school being almost this Hunger Games of different districts. I was a grown adult when I was writing this, I knew that they weren't true, but I loved the idea of the American high school. I'm French, I come from a French-speaking household. I was also an only child, and I had a TV in my room, so I basically kind of learned English watching The WB ... that might explain a lot.

I wanted to make it through an interview without bringing up The Gilmore Girls, but I can't! I love that show, and I think that cadence of always having a quippy reference is how I approached Norris, even though his is coded in trying to keep the world at bay, it's a very defensive maneuver for him even though he's not quite aware of it yet — it is how I engaged with social situations for quite a while.

On Norris's emotional state

Norris Kaplan is deeply depressed when he moves to Austin. It doesn't look like what you might expect from depression, but he's very hurt because his parents got divorced. He wanted to stay with his dad, to stay in Canada, but the dad basically refused, because he had a wife and a new child, and Norris feels like he's sort of been cast off, even though he loves his mom. I think he's a child of immigrants that dealing with the ripples of divorce in an immigrant household, which was my case too.

On dealing with divorce as a child of immigrants

I'll speak for myself, not the full scope of all immigrants everywhere — my parents moved from Haiti to Canada, and as an only child, a lot of the reason why they moved, a lot of their hopes and expectations were based on me, sort of to give me a better life, a better school, a better future — and I felt, I think a little bit, that when they got divorced, that was a failure on my part, that the son, or the child, having a better life wasn't enough to keep them together. So it's not an active or conscious thing on Norris's part, but I think that's a spine that the character and I do share.

On the need for books that normalize the experience of black kids

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.

This story was produced for radio by Kat Lonsdorf and Justine Kenin, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new novel, "The Field Guide To The North American Teenager," taps into all the raw anxiety of adolescence. Author Ben Philippe is able to take readers right to the heart of the matter.

BEN PHILIPPE: When you're a teenager, that's the age where you feel everything to the absolute highest, right? So you're not just like, oh, yeah, my relationship is kind of hitting a weird spot. It's like the world is crumbling, and screw your casserole, Mom. And nothing makes sense, and I'm just going to sob in a stairwell. And that's...

CORNISH: That was so accurate. I applaud you. Thank you for that.

PHILIPPE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: His protagonist is Norris Kaplan. He is a hockey-loving black French Canadian who's a snarky, skeptical fish out of water plopped into an Austin, Texas, high school. Though he was raised in Canada, the author's life is reflected in many of Norris' experiences.

PHILIPPE: On the one hand, Norris has a very, very thick outer shell. He's very much trying to attack first because he just assumes that moving to Texas, coming into the middle of the year, that people are going to attack him. He's black, he's French and he's Canadian. He has an accent that's probably similar to mine. So he has his guard up. And he's one of those people that lashes first so when you react badly, they can say, ha, ha, I knew it all along.

And, also, it's not a trope, but I remember reading so many white books where the protagonist is just mean and acerbic and sort of, like, off-putting.

CORNISH: Yeah.

PHILIPPE: And for some reason, everyone just flocks to them. And in the real world, that's not really how it goes. In the real world...

CORNISH: Right. In the real world, no one has to make a connection with you.

PHILIPPE: Exactly. If you push people away, most of the time, they just leave. And I wanted to start Norris at his brattiest and sort of have him come to that lesson, hopefully.

CORNISH: Now, the title, "The Field Guide To The North American Teenager," comes from this notebook that Norris keeps. And you start each chapter heading with a little kind of description of the creatures that we're going to encounter in that chapter. So here's one from Chapter 3.

(Reading) Jocks and cheerleaders. Identifying characteristics - muscular, rarely spotted without a water bottle, athleisure wear. Habitat - the jock table, football stadium or other athletic field, keg parties. Preening habits - extensive. Mating habits - frequency of copulation typically over-exaggerated.

It made me think of all of the books and movies I've seen with this archetype and with all of these. And did you have favorites growing up? Like, how did you - what was in the back of your mind when you were making your own jocks and cheerleaders and loners?

PHILIPPE: Oh, absolutely. Those headers come from, you know, years of soaking up America through the prism of teenage movies, through seeing, you know, "10 Things I Hate About You," Bring It On" - all those wide tropes of a high school being this almost "Hunger Games" of different districts.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Yeah.

PHILIPPE: And I was a grown adult when I was writing this. I knew that they weren't true, but I love the idea of the American high school. I'm French. I come from a French-speaking household. I was also an only child. And I had a TV in my room, so I basically kind of learned English watching the WB, which is...

CORNISH: Wow.

PHILIPPE: Yeah. That might explain a lot. This office feels like therapy.

CORNISH: (Laughter) It might. It might. I mean, maybe because especially the way the teenagers talk, you've got some very kind of smart, savvy teenagers in this book - not quite "Dawson's Creek" level, you know, where they just sound like adults, but they are all putting on the performance of being cynical adults, which it does feel pretty accurate.

PHILIPPE: Yeah. And I wanted to make it through an interview without bringing up the "Gilmore Girls," but I can't.

CORNISH: It's OK. It's all right. I'm here for you.

PHILIPPE: Thank you. Thank you for the support. I love that show. And I think that cadence of always having a quippy reference is how I approach Norris, even though his is coded and trying to keep the world at bay. It's a very defensive maneuver for him, even though he's not quite aware of it yet. It is how I engaged with social situations for quite a while.

CORNISH: Norris is also grappling with his parents' divorce. And as he's trying to navigate his move, as he's trying to navigate school, there is this undercurrent of emotion there - right? - this thing that is just kind of - I don't know how you would characterize it. How did you want this to affect his story?

PHILIPPE: Norris Kaplan is deeply depressed when he moves to Austin. It doesn't look like what you might expect from depression. But he's very hurt because his parents got divorced. He wanted to live with his dad to stay in Canada. But the dad basically refused because he had a wife and a new child. And Norris feels like he's been sort of, like, cast off, even though he loves his mom.

I think he's a child of immigrants that's dealing with the ripples of a divorce in an immigrant household, which was my case, too.

CORNISH: You said an immigrant household. Why do you think that's significant?

PHILIPPE: I'll speak for myself, not the full scope of all immigrants everywhere.

CORNISH: Right.

PHILIPPE: My parents moved from Haiti to Canada. And as an only child, a lot of the reason why they moved, a lot of their hopes and expectations were based on me - sort of, like, to give me a better life, give me a better school, a better future. And I felt, I think a little bit, that when they got divorced, that was a failure on my part - that, like, the son or the child having a better life wasn't enough to keep them together.

So it's not an active or conscious thing on Norris' part, but I do think that is a spine that the character and I share.

CORNISH: Ben Philippe, I feel emotional now, listening to that. Have your parents read this book?

PHILIPPE: My mother primarily speaks French, so we do this thing where she's learning English. She really wants to read the book. We read the same English book, and then she'll discuss it with me over the phone sort of just to understand what she just read. So she's getting really good.

And she started my book. You know, she saw the dedication. She was moved. And about halfway through, she was like, are the adults going to come back in? And it's like, no, no, it's mostly the kid.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILIPPE: And then she was like, oh, well, you know, Michelle Obama wrote a book. And I love you, but could we maybe switch to that one for a few chapters?

CORNISH: You know, I'm not mad at her.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILIPPE: No one's mad at her. As soon as they see Michelle Obama, they're like, well, yeah. Yes, I would do that, too. But I'm - she's not Michelle Obama's mother. Like, she could have, like, stuck it for, like, a few more chapters.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Do you think we're still in a moment where, like, we need books that kind of justify the normalness of being a black kid?

PHILIPPE: I've thought about this a lot, and I think we do.

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, right? You're given all the potential that is 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.

CORNISH: Ben Philippe - his new book is "The Field Guide To The North American Teenager." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PHILIPPE: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU TO WANT ME")

LETTERS TO CLEO: (Singing) I want you to want me. I need you to need me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.