A Whole New Ballgame
On one level, A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME by Phil Bildner and illustrated by Tim Probert is a book about friendship, about not rushing to judgment and not letting appearances scare you away from making meaningful connections. On another level, it's about education, something that affects people of all ages and requires just as much open-mindedness as friendship.
A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME focuses on best friends Rip, an African American boy, and Red, a boy on the autism spectrum, as budget cuts at their school force most of their teachers into retirement. One of the replacements is Mr. Acevedo, who has some rather unorthodox teaching strategies that test Rip and Red in ways they weren't expecting and that they initially resist.
A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME is definitely a school story, though it does a nice job giving glimpses of Rip's home life, including his relationship with his mother, who is also an educator. It does an excellent job of stressing just how important education can be, and how stifling it can often become when schools and parents demand education be about teaching to a standardized test. To its credit, the book does not espouse a revolution against testing and is not about how public education is bad or wrong or a pointless endeavor. It recognizes the need for benchmarks and for testing, but it does not use standardized testing as an excuse to restrict creativity in the classroom, either from students or faculty.
The story stresses a need for flexibility, and the power of presenting new information in a way that doesn't make children unresponsive to teaching. At first, Rip and Red --- as well as many parents in the book --- are pushed in ways that make them uncomfortable; they fear that education cannot work if it is not focused on a test. But by focusing on learning instead, they find themselves more confident than ever to face the challenges in front of them.
And in the end, A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME provides a fun experience, blending basketball and friendship with lessons on education and acceptance.
Simultaneously, A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME sends a strong message that diversity and difference can take many forms and that people are not solely defined by what makes them different. The characters are incredibly diverse, from Rip to Red to Avery, a young girl in a wheelchair, to Mr. Acevedo himself. They are not their race or their disability, though those things certainly give them different perspectives on the world that should be shared and empathized with, not turned away from. Rather than being pushed to memorize facts, the students are pushed to learn from each other and discover the skills required to answer questions.
And in the end, A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME provides a fun experience, blending basketball and friendship with lessons on education and acceptance. There are times when the events in the book seem just a bit too convenient for the message it's trying to promote, but overall it provides a nicely layered examination of what education could be like, and perhaps should be like, at a time when teaching to a test and cutting budgets is becoming more and more prevalent. With a refreshing voice and a solid core (as well as some charming illustrations), it entertains even as it seeks to teach an important lesson, rather nicely emphasizing its core point: the best teaching should be fun for everyone.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur on August 17, 2015