"Knuckleball Ned" by R. A. Dickey is a clever retelling of a common picture book theme. A child who feels like an outsider and is bullied saves the day and feels good about himself or herself. What makes this retelling stand out from the rest is the use of baseballs and baseball terminology for the characters.
The main character is Ned. He's not sure why he's just Ned and doesn't have a second name like the other kids. There's Softball Sammy and Connie Curveball. Their teacher is Mrs. Pitch. But Ned is just Ned. And he wobbles wherever he goes.
The bullies are members of the Foul Ball Gang, and when Ned wobbles down the aisle, they snicker. One of the gang calls Ned a "knucklehead ball," and they laugh and try to trip him. But Ned surprises them by floating gracefully over their legs and into his seat.
At recess, Ned is hanging out with his new friends, Connie and Sammy, when the Foul Ball gang grab Connie's street shoes (she's been dancing in her ballet shoes) and throw the shoes high up in the trees. Fletcher Fastball and Fiona Fastball try to help her get her shoes, but none of them are able to.
Finally, Ned decides to try. He floats through the branches and saves the day. Connie tells everyone she knows what kind of ball Ned is: a knuckleball.
This is a fabulous story to use as a read aloud with classes from kindergarten through third grade. It's about finding out what you're good at, and it's about friends helping each other. Kids who are different can see that while at first being different can get you in trouble, or get you teased, sometimes being different is really special -- in a good way.
Teachers who are familiar with baseball and baseball terms will really get a kick out of explaining what the different terms mean. Even the fact that there are two "fastballs" makes sense because a fastball is the most common type of pitch thrown in a baseball game. And the knuckleball? The character, and the way he flies, are absolutely how a knuckleball flies.
It's no wonder the author did such a fine job melding the story and the pitching terms. R. A. Dickey is a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. He is also the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award -- the award to the best pitcher in the league. His knuckleball, like his protagonist Ned, must really float, wiggle, and wobble.
Tim Bowers, the illustrator, does a splendid job animating baseballs and softballs. It had to be difficult to turn those kinds of balls, with rows of red stitching across them, into kids with different personalities. Bowers nails it.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dial, for review purposes.
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