Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Whole New Ballgame by Phil Bildner, illustrations by Tim Probert

Rip is black, Red is autistic. But they're so much more than just their labels. They both love basketball, even though Red can't play games because it's too much sensory input. They're both ready for the best fifth grade year ever.

But nothing is what they expected. They have a new teacher, Mr. Acevedo, who doesn't believe in homework or testing and gives them crazy assignments that test Red to the limit. He's also coaching the basketball team and Rip is worried that the new way the team is run won't work, never mind winning any games!

However, as the school year continues, both Rip and Red face challenges, make new friends, and come to see the world in a different way. There are a few black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout the book that give it flair and interest although not enough to label it a notebook novel.

I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, it hits a lot of school book tropes I don't like - the crazy teacher who bucks the administration and breaks the rules, the pointedly diverse kids that can sometimes devolve into stereotypes. But as I got further into the book, it devolved from the stereotypes. Not everything Mr. Acevedo does works. Red has sensory breakdowns from the loose class structure and Rip and the resource teacher have to help him out. Mr. Acevedo gets in trouble with the administration and parents and has to focus more on testing. He tries to make accommodations for Avery, who is in a wheelchair, and she just gets angrier. Of course, at the end of the book it tips back a bit - Red makes free throws that win them the basketball game against impossible odds, Red, Rip, and Avery all do astonishingly well on their tests, etc.

Verdict: There's enough basketball and humor in this that I think it will appeal to kids. It packs a lot of different issues and subjects into the book, but it's a more realistic look at disability than most of the recent middle grade books I've seen, especially of autistic kids, and it includes a lot of messages about trying different things and being resilient when things don't go the way you'd hoped. All in all, it was a good book that I'd recommend.

ISBN: 9780374301309; Published 2015 by Farrar Strauss Giroux; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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