A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME by Phil Bildner

18-a-whole-new-ballgameMason “Rip” Irving and Blake “Red” Daniels think they know exactly what to expect from fifth grade. They know their principal, Ms. Darling (real name) is going to stand at the entrance to greet all the students. They know that Ms. Hamburger (real name) is going to be their homeroom teacher. And, most importantly, they know they can finally try out for the district’s basketball team.⠀

But when they arrive at school nobody is there to greet them out in front. When they get to their homeroom they find, not Ms. Hamburger, but a young, long-haired, tattooed teacher called Mr. Acevedo.⠀

More changes await the two best friend that will turn their precious little world upside down, and especially so for Red, who thrives on order and routine. But they have one another. And they will soon find that every challenge comes with the opportunity for new allies as well.⠀

—⠀

Middle grade books do so much. Not only do they have to be breezy, fun reads in order to sustain the attention of kids who live in a world of extremely loud and incredibly constant distraction, but they often have to do so while exploring some serious, sensitive issues — without losing that sense of playfulness and optimism we tend to associate with childhood.⠀

It’s a lot to handle. We’re currently living through a sort of Renaissance in children’s literature, though, so there’s no shortage of books that manage to carry this weight — and Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame is certainly among these.⠀

It’s a simple story told with a lot of heart, with wonderfully realized characters. Rip and Red are charming and endearing and immediately likable. Their relationship is the heart of the book and its portrayal is fittingly heartwarming. Even side characters with limited roles like Avery and Rip’s mother are given their fair share of story. And of course you can’t help but root for Mr. Acevedo right from the get-go, an idealist who stands in for those modern educators who prioritize dynamic and fun learning methods, tailored to their student’s needs, rather than relying on the rigid and often outdated practices that hinder our current educational system, especially so in the Western world.⠀

Which is one of those serious subjects that creep in: the boy’s school doesn’t look the way they expected it to because of severe cuts in their district’s budget, something that happens all too often in the real world, as any teacher can surely discuss at length.⠀

Another interesting aspect of this book is in its depiction of disability. Avery is a wheelchair user who, rather than being treated as a one-dimensional character, as the trope tends to do, gets a fair amount of depth. Some of her experiences are discussed at length in a charming and amusing manner. (She even gets to be a bit of a jerk). And then there’s Red himself, who is on the autism spectrum. He struggles a bit with all the changes going on around him, but he’s portrayed as a tenacious and clever character. And luckily his best friend Rip offers plenty of support and encouragement, as does Mr. Acevedo and a handful of other teachers. I thought author Phil Bildner, a former teacher himself, did an admirable job with their depiction. ⠀

Middle grade books do so much. A Whole New Ballgame is certainly no exception.⠀

Oh and there’s a decent amount of basketball in here, too, as the title suggests. Like most books involving sports, though, it’s a metaphor. Because what’s life after sudden change if not a whole new….⠀

Well, you know.⠀

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