The Field Guide to the North American Teenager: A Review

“It wasn’t the happy ending he wanted but, then again, there were no such things as happy endings. Happy endings were artificial things manufactured out of less-than-ideal circumstances.”

Norris Kaplan is too smart for his own good, decent at hockey and ice skating by Canadian standards (amazing by American standards), and perfectly fine with burning bridges–it’s so much faster than building them.

Now, thanks to his mother’s quest for a tenure track position, Norris is also Austin, Texas’ newest and unhappiest resident. As a black French Canadian, everything in Texas feels like a personal affront. No one knows cares about hockey. His school assumes he won’t speak English. Not to mention going literally anywhere outside feels exactly like walking on the surface of the sun.

In this fresh hell Norris is expected to attend school, make new friends (as if any of them can replace his best friend back home in Canada), and actually make an effort to fit in. The only problem is that Norris would much rather go it alone and convince everyone (including himself) that he likes it that way.

The real question for Norris is if after spending so long pushing everyone away, is there anyone left in his high school (or the entire city) who is actually willing to accept Norris as he is? in The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (2019) by Ben Philippe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is Philippe’s debut novel. Philippe’s close third person narration is as snarky as it is on point as Norris shares observations about his new surroundings ranging from caustic to poignant. Each chapter opens with an observation pulled from the field guide Norris begins keeping about his new high school while trying his best to avoid enjoying anything in Texas.

This romantic comedy is the perfect blend of humor and literary prose as Norris tries to make sense of his new surroundings and the ever-confusing world of dating. The story subverts several familiar tropes as Norris tries to connect with the local Manic Pixie Dream Girl and horrifyingly finds himself the captain of a misfit community hockey team.

Snappy dialogue and a winning cast of characters more than make up for a meandering plot and an ending that is widely open to interpretation as readers (and Norris himself) wonder what a happy ending might actually look like for him.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is the aged up Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Harriet the Spy mashup that we have always deserved. Recommended for readers who prefer their protagonists to be 85% snark, 10% enthusiasm, and 5% genuine sincerity.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, American Panda by Gloria Chao, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; Past Perfect by Leila Sales, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

The Spectacular Now: A Review

“Goodbye, I say, goodbye, as I disappear little by little into the middle of my own spectacular now.”

The Spectacular Now by Tim TharpSutter Keeley is  great in his own mind. Larger than life, always the life of the party. Sutter is, surely, as irresistible as he is wise.

The reality, unsurprisingly, is a little different. What Sutter defines as a life as “god’s own drunk” is a boilerplate drinking problem. The rest of Sutter’s charms are debatable at best and vary wildly depending on if you’re asking one of his beautifully amicable ex-girlfriends, his family who is legitimately worried, or his friends.

Sutter is content to live the moment, whether it involves trying to win back his gorgeous, fat ex-girlfriend Cassidy or befriending the mousy, painfully nerdy Aimee, or getting a drink. The problem with living in the moment is that eventually everyone else starts to pass you by in The Spectacular Now (2008) by Tim Tharp.

Your reaction to this book is going to depend a lot on how you feel about Sutter. Tharp provides another fine addition to the already well-populated world of lovable alcoholics in fiction. The problem–not just here but in general–is that this general affability belies the fact that alcoholics are train wrecks and only very rarely lovable.

There are no consequences for Sutter in his own mind or in real life. Drunk driving never leads to an arrest or even a ticket. Drinking only impairs his judgement so far as it needs to go for the plot. While no story needs to have a message or a moral, it felt strangely one-sided to read this story and watch Sutter skate through life on his charms, his flask, and very little else.

Following the story thread with Aimee and Sutter, it’s possible to argue that Sutter is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy meant to flit through life, fall in love and leave his love interest the better for their acquaintance. Except Sutter is a really terrible MPDB and profoundly bad at making anyone’s life better.

The other reading, the one I favor, is that Sutter is a sociopath. Everything in the narrative is sinister. Sutter is sinister. Ideas and themes are touched upon but never fleshed out enough to really matter or leave an impact. Sutter’s unreliable narration raises more questions than the story ultimately answers.

While Tharp’s writing is excellent and completely on-point The Spectacular Now is lacking in character development and, on a smaller level, heart. With a narrative that reads more as a mid-life crisis than teenage unrest, this book is interesting but ultimately frustrating.

Possible Pairings: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Slumming by Kristen D. Randle, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Wild Awake by Hillary T. Smith, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Beginning of Everything: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn SchneiderEzra Faulkner believes that everyone has a tragedy in their lives. That one formative moment that will forever define them in terms of the before and the after. For some people that tragedy involves a severed head. For others it can be as mundane as a broken heart.

For Ezra, it starts with a cheating girlfriend and ends with a shattered knee that destroys his athletic career and, along with it, everything Ezra has used to define himself for years. Suddenly, Ezra is no longer at the top of the high school social ladder. He isn’t a part of his circle of friends. He will never play Varsity tennis again.

Instead Ezra has to start over, complete with his super trendy annoying cane and wrist brace, to try and find a place for himself. Along the way he is adopted by the school misfits, joins the debate team, and falls hopelessly into the orbit of Cassidy Thorpe.

Effortlessly vivid and mysterious, Cassidy immediately fascinates Ezra the way she does everyone else. With her sharp wit and humor, it’s easy to fall for her, especially when she is always bringing Ezra on adventures. But, much like her appearance at Ezra’s school, nothing to do with Cassidy Thorpe is quite what Ezra expects.

During a year spent redefining himself in the wake of his own tragedy, Ezra has to decide what it means when some people can’t–or won’t–move past their personal tragedy in The Beginning of Everything (2013) by Robyn Schneider.

The Beginning of Everything is a clever, often quirky, coming-of-age story. Schneider ably captures Ezra’s voice in a narration that is surprisingly insightful while remaining sardonic and never, ever becoming pretentious. Set in California, Schneider brings a sprawling suburban town to life from the school’s food court and classes down to the high security of each gated community.

There are a lot of things to enjoy in The Beginning of Everything including Schneider’s nods to The Great Gatsby and the humor and optimism she maintains in what could have been a weighty, sad narrative. With so many strengths, it is the cast of characters that set The Beginning of Everything apart as Schneider skillfully creates an ensemble where even the most minor characters feel like they are just waiting to star in their own novel.

Schneider packs in an array of literary and pop culture references ranging from the Panopticon to Neopets to Banksy with a smattering of foreign vocabulary thrown in to taste. Ezra’s story is both familiar and original as Schneider brings a whole new dimension to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and effectively turns the very idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl completely upside down. Equal parts breezy and smart, The Beginnign of Everything is a delight.

Possible Pairing: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Paper Towns by John Green, The Last True Love Story by Brendan Kiely, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

Anyone could be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: An Article Response in Which I Say We Need More Stories

An article has been making the rounds of my twitter stream this past week. Fellow librarian Jody Wurl brought it to my attention. Maggie Stiefvater had a few thoughts about it on Saturday. You might have heard about it from someone else.

The article is: “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Laurie Penny (posted on the New Statesman site)

To start, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” are a character type often found in bildungsroman movies featuring male leads. They fall in love, the MPDG shows the man how to live. She disappears, dies or otherwise fades away leaving the male lead better for the acquaintance. Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really a character in a film or book. She is a plot device. She is a trope. She is Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Kiersten Dunst in Elizabethrown, the female lead in either version of Sweet November. (Did you know the version with Richard Gere was a remake? Because I did not until last week.)

She was also, at one point, writer Laurie Penny.

Her article is really interesting and I suggest you all go read it because Penny has a lot of valuable thoughts about feminism and what being a feminist really means. I was especially pleased when the second paragraph nailed all of my issues with Dr. Who. I’ve wanted to like Dr. Who for years. Since Rose was the Doctor’s companion. But I never could get there. For a while I thought Donna Noble would be able to transcend her role as companion. And she did. Only to be written out and told she isn’t allowed to have those things, or even want those things, after.* And then we went back to having a dashing, manic in his own right, Doctor and a pretty, young companion to keep him company and show him how to understand humanity.

Maybe I’ll start watching again when the Doctor regenerates as a woman.

Anyway, after that insight, Penny explains that she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the short stature to the pixie cut to the ukelele playing.

And that’s when things got interesting because Penny also posited that women (girls when they are MPDGs) never have the expectation of being the hero of their own story. Instead she suggests “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”

Later in the article she goes on to say that this is the reason MPDGs appear in real life:

“Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing.”

Penny came to realize that personality had to go when she wanted to be a writer and that meant becoming a “grown fucking woman” and making choices that would ultimately alienate and intimidate potential male partners.

Penny tries to end on an up note urging women to write their own stories, create their own characters and, more importantly, grow up and leave the Manic Pixie Dream Girl behind.

Reading the article I had a lot of “duh” moments because it feels like information anyone (or maybe I should say anyone who identifies as a feminist) would know already. But maybe there are people out there who didn’t know. And maybe that makes this article surprising to some.

For me, it wasn’t surprising and I thought it was one-sided and missed some key points (thus the giant response post so that we can all talk about this together!).

I’ve never been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I am neither short or thin enough although I often had the right hair. I think I’ve always been too pragmatic and far too caustic. And to borrow Penny’s own phrasing, I was a “grown fucking woman” long before I decided to pursue writing (if you can call what I’m doing writing–there’s a novel in the works and this blog–I grant it’s no professional career . . . yet). My mother is disabled and I’ve been helping run the household since college. We co-manage an eBay shop. I’ve had a job since I was seventeen-years-old and put myself through college and grad school with that job and a combination of scholarships and state funding.

I don’t know Penny’s life but I found the idea that the biggest facet of becoming a grown woman was becoming a writer deeply frustrating and deeply misleading. Much like the rich inner life a MPDG never reveals, we all have responsibilities and things we carry. I’ve been carrying things since I was in my teens. It has never had anything to do with my writing or professional choices. (And, frankly, I think the idea that being a political writer is the only thing to be intimidating to Penny’s suitors somewhat laughable. Maybe that was part of it but I dare say being outspoken, well-educated, and a feminist contributed just as largely.)

I don’t know what stories Penny had growing up. I don’t know the books she read or the things she did. But I was sad when I read that she fell into the role of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it was the character she saw again and again that most resembled herself. I was sad when she talked about men growing up to be heroes and women growing up to be damsels.

I suspect all of the credit here goes to my mother but I didn’t have that moment. I have never for one second doubted that I am the hero of my own story. Sometimes it’s a dumb story. Boring even. But it is always my story. And I am never, ever in a supporting role. I don’t think that always has to do with the models available. I watched the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty every day when I was a toddler. I loved anything and everything princess as a child (I still do).** That has never lessened my conviction that I can accomplish great things all on my own. Because my mother never let me think any less of myself; she never doubted me.

Returning to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as fictional character (rather than real person), Penny goes on to say MPDG is “one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority.” Here’s the thing (which Maggie Stiefvater said on Saturday on Twitter) as we see her, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was never meant to have an interior life. Because the story is never about her. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but the MPDG is a plot device. She is there to teach something, to showcase something. She is not there to tell her own story.

It is a shame that there is a whole trope about these (young) women who descend to impart wisdom only to disappear but there it is. If the story were from her point of view, we wouldn’t be dealing with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all. We just don’t call them that because we’re busy calling them the HEROINE. One recent example is Kiri in Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith. But there are others too. From the outside these characters look like Manic Pixie Dream Girls but because the story is in their head–because we get to see the cracks and flaws in that persona they wear like armor–they transcend the label and become more than a plot device.

But here’s the thing: This problem exists for any character. Any character, any person, who is boiled down to a core set of stereotypes and traits is going to be seen as less than the sum of their parts. They are always going to exist as more legend than person. What is Edward Cullen or Mr. Darcy*** but a reinvented version of Prince Charming–a male character meant to rescue a princess and/or take her on a great adventure?

While some of the logic was (fairly and rightly) skewed, I agree wholeheartedly with Penny about the power of story: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic – but it’s a risk you have to take.”

I’ll finish now by taking that one step further: We don’t just need new stories for women. We need new stories period. We need stories for the nice guy who is never going to fall into a bad boy situation. We need stories for the girl who cares more about studying than prom. We need stories for people of color. We need stories for the kids who are still trying to find a way to articulate who they are and who they want to be.

We need more stories.

We need more stories to move beyond characters as plot devices–be it a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Prince Charming or something else entirely. We need more stories to be mirrors instead of exemplars. Personally, I’m looking forward to finding those stories.

*Seriously. The “Dr. Donna” storyline is tragic. I still haven’t recovered.

**One of the first fantasies I ever read (when I was eleven), and one of my most favorite, was A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It has no female characters (beyond one herb witch who acts as a rudimentary teacher in early chapters). It doesn’t even have room for female characters because girls can’t become wizards. I didn’t read that and go about to make myself an ideal companion for these adventure-having characters. I sat down on my family’s first-ever computer, put in a fresh floppy disk, and I started writing a version of the story where a girl did become a wizard. (I guess this would also be one of my only forays into fan fiction–years and years before I even knew what fan fiction was. But that’s a different post.)

***Or Peter Pan or Po or Adam or my beloved Alan Ryves or any other devastating male lead.