Review: A Whole New Ballgame by Phil Bildner

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A Whole New Ballgame seemed like it could be a promising study of friendship between an autistic character and neurotypical character. Based on the description on the cover flap, I was looking forward to seeing how the main characters’ love of basketball helps them through a stressful school year. Unfortunately, while the neurotypical character Rip gets a separate narrative and character development, Red is often relegated to muttering statistics and nervously stimming in the background.

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME at GoodreadsI began, as I usually do with books that claim to represent a certain minority or historical era, with the acknowledgements section and author’s biography. The acknowledgments section made no mention of consulting anyone with autism, or even a mental health professional with some familiarity with autism. This led me to worry that the author had neglected to get even second-hand knowledge of what it’s like to have autism. Unfortunately, it’s very common for authors not to consult with autistic people, instead working from existing media portrayals for their knowledge. Working from book research alone in portraying a condition as diverse as autism is already dubious, but there wasn’t even an indication of how much of that he’d done.

However, several elements were portrayed well, early on in the story. Red’s tendency to describe things with excessive precision—for example, calling Rip “Mason Irving” or the cafeteria lunch “Super Salad featuring chilled chicken tender strips, crispy green lettuce, and freshly diced tomatoes”—reminded me of how I always called my childhood therapist by both her first name and last name, because that was how she was introduced to me. Red’s reactions to feeling confused and overwhelmed also seemed true to life; he stims to soothe himself and repeats his questions. Later on, Red is the only one to notice that their teacher, Mr. Acevedo, is upset, just before he makes a distressing announcement. This display of uncanny intuition is something I find is common in autistic people, but not as common in autistic narratives as written by neurotypicals. I was pleased to see this.

The story begins by introducing a new teacher, a new curriculum, and a new basketball league for Rip and Red’s school—all good changes, but stressful for a child with autism like Red, who thrives with a routine. Each new situation brings a lot of questions, a lot of stimming, and the need for lots of reassurance.

Red loves basketball and is gifted at it, but the leagues have recently been made competitive and his mom won’t allow him to compete. This causes difficulty later in the book, because the team struggles without him. Rip cites the very legitimate concern that Red might melt down if he’s body-checked by a stranger, and Red is still allowed to play at practices, but I would be surprised if he weren’t at least a little disappointed. However, the book shows no explicit reaction on Red’s part to this decision—another reason that I feel he isn’t treated as a fully developed character.

When it became clear that all the students’ parents  were aware that adjustments were taking place at the school, I was somewhat appalled that no one had thought to tell Red things were going to be different, so that he would have a chance to mentally prepare.  One of the things that was emphasized in my therapy was that it was important to warn an autistic person ahead of a new experience. If the parents were aware that summer that Red  would have a different teacher in the fall, I don’t understand why he wasn’t given that consideration. It felt like a strange oversight, given that they are usually sensitive to his needs. (For example, Rip’s mother serves the same food every time Red comes over on a Saturday.) But of course, if they took Red’s comfort into account then there would be no chance for conflict. It’s a common mechanism of exploiting an autistic narrative.

As Rip works on a separate group project with a cynical girl named Avery (who uses a wheelchair—one strong positive of this author is that he seems committed to representation), there is less and less of Red as the book goes on. On the occasions when he does appear, his character is contradictory without explanation. Sometimes he can deal with watching and participating in the basketball games, sometimes he can’t. Sometimes he is hampered by an overdone case of literalism (mentioning it once or twice is fine, but the author relies on it far too much), other times it’s easier for him to grasp figures of speech. Early on in the book, Rip says only he and a few grown-ups are allowed to touch Red, yet he will give spontaneous hugs. I understand better than most that autistic people often appear to contradict themselves; for example, I am comfortable with initiating touch if it’s wanted, but I am uncomfortable with people touching me uninvited. But instead of explaining these contradictions, the author never addresses them, leaving some of Red’s behavior to be viewed as out-of-character.

Throughout the book, it is emphasized that Red is part of the team, both in the classroom and on the basketball court. However, the author seems to use him and his autism as more of a pawn to further the story, discarding him when not needed. Red’s dislike of change plays a large role early in the book, as everyone tries to help him adjust. His talent at basketball and restriction from competing means that Rip’s team is hampered without him, but the adults change their minds last-minute and let Red “save” them during the final competition, their last chance to win. This might be seen as positive—giving Red a chance to be the star—but it came across as artificial, because he had faded from the narrative by that point. His amazing basketball ability, quite a pleasing trait in a world where very few autistic characters are shown playing sports, is used in a way that seems gimmicky. All of these scenes give Red very little agency as a character. Instead of getting a chance to develop as a person, Red is controlled by other people’s decisions: the decision to make changes in the school curriculum, the decision not to inform him about these changes, the decisions about when and where he is allowed to participate as a member of the basketball team. We see his reactions, but he isn’t given a chance to act on his own, and that is unfortunate.

There is some good news: A Whole New Ballgame is the first in a series. There are at least three more books planned and each has the subtitle “a Rip and Red book.” This gives me hope that there will be further chances for Red to come into his own as a character, and truly share the byline with Rip. Thus, despite this book not quite meeting my expectations, I’m eager to read the next in the series.

At one point, Avery says to Rip, “Red is the autistic kid … You’re the black kid who lives and breathes basketball. I’m the wheeler. That’s who we are. Deal with it.” It’s clear that the author is attempting to show that this is not true, and people are more than just their labels. Perhaps in the next books, he’ll be able to paint a fuller picture of Red, beyond that of “the autistic kid.”

About Author

Jessica Mulqueen

Jessica Mulqueen is currently writing a YA fantasy novel. She also works at TERI, Inc.’s therapeutic equestrian center for students with developmental disabilities. In her spare time she reads voraciously, swims, and spends too much time on the internet. Jessica lives in San Diego County in southern California.