Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

countingWhen I requested Counting by 7s from NetGalley, I didn’t know that this ARC has been high at the top of many people’s wish-list, so I am glad that the description was intriguing and I was lucky enough to get approved to read it. After finishing, I completely understand why it is getting a lot of attention.

Twelve-year-old Willow Chance is far, far, far, from your typical preteen, but that’s OK with her. This genius is satisfied with her adoptive parents for companionship. She is interested in medical issues and loves counting by sevens (her favorite number). Willow has created an astoundingly successful, eco-conscious backyard garden at her California home and grows produce to rival the best of farmers’ markets. Upon entering middle school, she attains a perfect score on a standardized test , is immediately accused of cheating, and is scheduled to meet with inept and awkward guidance counselor Dell Duke.

Tragedy strikes when Willow’s parents are killed in a car accident. She is temporarily placed in the care of Pattie Nguyen, the mother of Mai and Quang-ha–students who Willow met at Dell Duke’s office. The Nguyen family, Dell Duke, and a taxi driver named Jairo Hernandez become important people in Willow’s life, albeit gradually, as they start out as strangers when she is first suffering the loss of her parents.

I have heard this book referred to as the next Wonder or Mockingbird, but I have to say that to me it is a different sort of book. Although I enjoyed those two books (Wonder more so), and I think they are important additions to the middle school collection, I don’t think Counting by 7s  should be lumped in with them. To me, as heartfelt as they are, both of those books have a definite purpose–to promote understanding of and sympathy for a character who faces challenges that the typical middle school student does not. That is why the books are chosen for book clubs and all-school reads. In contrast, Sloan’s Willow is definitely an unconventional character, but she doesn’t seem to represent a specific group or call for a “teachable moment.” As readers, we are not asked to understand Willow or to judge the ways in which others treat her. We are asked to witness her journey to family.

Willow starts out barely knowing any of the other important characters in the book. She observes them from the outside, much as she would an entire hallway of middle schoolers or a germinating sunflower seed. Readers examine their strengths and flaws along with Willow and gradually develop an affection for them, along with Willow. We are sometimes puzzled by their actions and often triumph in their successes. And at the book’s end, we conclude, along with Willow, that she has found a special group of people with whom to belong–a family.

Another reason to love this book is that Sloan’s prose is beautiful and symbolic. As Willow begins to garden again, she begins to let others into her life in a meaningful way. This will be picked up on by  many middle grade readers, but it is subtle and well-crafted and will make those readers feel as if they are peeling an onion of meaning. They will make connections. They will remember this book. And for that reason, I hesitate to suggest this for a read-aloud or an all-school read. Experiencing this book on an individual level seems more appropriate, more in the spirit of the work, more true to Willow. That way, responses to the book will be as unique as Willow herself–you can count on it.

Note: due to be published on August 29, 2013 by Dial.

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