For KT Sutton, softball is life. She pitches year round for travel teams, club teams, and of course her middle school team. Family outings typically involve trips to out-of-town tournaments. All of her friends are softball players. KT’s future goals – earning a college athletic scholarship and winning an Olympic gold medal – are softball-oriented. Fate throws KT into an alternative universe – with no softball – in Game Changer, Margaret Peterson Haddix’s perfectly serviceable, if unspectacular tween novel.
Near the end of a tournament's final game, KT blacks out during a routine play. She wakes up in a world where students take physical education courses the entire school day, and all extracurricular activities are academically-based. Math, chemistry, and poetry competitions have replaced sporting events. Softball is “a little-known game, rarely played.” In this world, KT’s athletic prowess makes her a straight-A student. But because there is little correlation between school-work success and extra-curricular opportunity, KT’s school experiences are dreadful. Game Changer doesn’t slam athletics in favor of academics. Instead, Haddix targets the disconnect between the classroom and extracurricular opportunity for everyone.
There’s a lot to hold the reader’s attention here, but the pacing is awkward and jumpy. When KT wakes up in this new reality, she instantly notices differences but rationalizes the discrepancies to the point of absurdity. The classroom desks have been replaced by treadmills, the athletic trophy cases are filled with academic awards, and the sports facilities are gone! By page 70, I want to scream at KT and tell her to process this information. You’re not in Kansas anymore!
Things get interesting about halfway through the book as KT discovers one ally, then another, and begins to put the clues together that will form a route home. But the Wizard of Oz ending is too convenient and too abrupt. An epilogue – set 3 years later – is necessary yet patronizing; necessary because Haddix has to tell us what she hasn’t shown us, and patronizing because given more plot and character development, we could have drawn these conclusions ourselves.
As a reader, I cringed at a few of the consistent-yet-absurd elements of this new reality. The cheerleaders wear argyle sweaters and fake horn-rimmed glasses. The academic athletes are called “Spocks” (instead of jocks.) The popular, pretty girls swoon over the nerdiest-looking boys. ESPN covers only academic competitions. Alternate-world Mom and Dad lament that they have to spend all day walking a treadmill (really!) because they weren’t good enough at academic competitions. Perhaps these and a dozen other descriptions are written as satire or tongue-in-cheek humor. But they don’t add much to the story.
Margaret Peterson Haddix is a leading tween fiction author, and Game Changer is certainly an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. But it’s not Haddix at her best. It is simply average, and Haddix’s books are usually great. Game Changer will satisfy tween readers looking for a quick, high-concept novel, and will provide another entry point to the work of an outstanding author. Buy a copy or two for your library, and promote it to science fiction aficionados and sports athletes/fans. (Oddly enough, there’s no reference to softball in the cover art, although the game is mentioned on almost every page.) A copy would also fit nicely in your classroom library.