Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan;
Dial Books for Young Readers: New York,
Twelve-year-old Willow Chance, who is fascinated by and knowledgeable about plants and medical conditions, has enough to deal with starting a new middle school with no friends and being accused of cheating on an important test before her parents die in a car crash. She soon finds that not only her world is changed after her parents’ sudden, tragic death, but her personality as well. Willow no longer finds herself indulging in her old habits—counting by sevens (her lucky number), charting home-grown sunflowers’ percentage of germination, or even checking the time of day.
The summary on the back cover of the book states that “the triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy.” After reading the first twenty or so chapters of the book, I couldn’t say I agreed with this. Willow was completely devastated after losing the only family she ever knew—who wouldn’t be? But as I proceeded to read the rest of the book, I found that the statement was true. Willow’s story is not a tragedy. Instead, the plot focuses on how she puts herself back together, piece by piece, until she finally returns to her old self. I have come across several books in which the protagonist has been orphaned, but none that feature this unusual way of bringing realism to the narrative.
When I finished this book, I wasn’t left with the same sense of emptiness I’ve experienced with other books. I left Willow with compassionate, understanding people who care for her. I do miss the characters, but I don’t feel the need to read more and more about what happens, as the ending is positive and satisfying.
However, what I enjoyed most of all about this book was how well written it was. In the first page, the balance between rich description and the flow of action really pulled me in. The opening scene, which includes speaking in Vietnamese and eating ice cream with the school counselor at the Foster’s Freeze, left me wondering and motivated to read more. The chapters flip between first-person narration from Willow’s perspective and third-person narration, giving the reader a viewpoint of what’s going on in Willow’s opinion and what’s happening in the rest of the world. The author is so insightful about seeing the world through Willow’s eyes that I can easily relate to her in many ways as a twelve-year-old myself.
Willow’s story possesses another unique quality that many books lack—there is no “bad guy,” bully, or even unkind person in her story. Instead, Willow’s villain is her own misery. This makes the book even more realistic. Willow does not need to humiliate, stand up to, or get revenge on anyone to be able to fix her life—she has to overcome her enemy by achieving happiness and returning to her old personality, or, as she puts it, “the Old Me.”
As new characters are introduced throughout the book, the author includes Willow’s first impressions and, over time, subtly points out their strengths, weaknesses, and traits. Through many interactions, the reader learns to like the characters, each in their own way. The characters who are important enough for Willow to get to know are compassionate people, at least on the inside.
I think Counting by 7s is a worthwhile read because the uniqueness and realism of the plot and characters is well-matched with the compelling narrative.