posted by Beret.
Age Range: Grades 5-8.
I’ve always had a soft spot for what I call “misfit lit.” Into this category I throw a few of the best books for young people I’ve read in the recent past: Loser, by Jerry Spinneli; Wonder, by R.J. Palacio; and A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. A major appeal of these books is that everyone feels like an alien at some point in their lives–often and particularly in middle school. Delving into the brain of an outsider and seeing how they experience and cope with difference can be both comforting and empowering. It could also encourage young people to look for what they might have in common with others, no matter how different they appear to be.
Counting by 7s is no exception. What is unique is that we spend a good deal of the book inside the head of Willow Chance–a girl with incredible intellectual gifts and a penchant for botany, medical texts, and the number seven. The author, Holly Goldberg Sloan, does not water down Willow’s vocabulary or personality in any way to make her character easier to swallow. In fact, it isn’t important for the reader to understand everything the main protagonist says or does throughout the novel in order to grasp her emotional turmoil and her desperate need to cope and connect.
With that in mind, if the reader falls at the younger end of the suggested age range, the book might work better as a read-aloud. That way sentences such as, “Your left elbow displays the fifth form of psoriasis–an erythrodermic condition characterized by intense redness in large patches,” won’t detract from the momentum of the story.
The book opens with soft-serve ice cream cones, followed immediately by the accidental death of Willow’s adoptive parents. She then becomes a ward of the court. We don’t know who anyone is at this point–not their ages or roles or relationships to each other, but after the initial shock, the author backs up two months to lay the groundwork for the novel.
The first four chapters are all from Willow’s point of view. She introduces us to her adoptive family, her difficulties at school, as well as her quirky personality. Though idiosyncratic, her habit of counting and arranging facts into sevens does highlight the way that we humans try to impose order and sense onto the events and circumstances we experience. After the tragic accident, however, Willow abandons this practice until the end of the book, ostensibly because it is impossible to make sense of trauma and grief.
During these first chapters, Willow also reveals the incident that got her referred to the hopelessly inept school district behavioral counselor, Dell Duke. He’s a mess. Truly.
Then, as in Wonder, we begin to hop from head to head, including the counselor, a troubled teen and his sister, a Korean woman who runs a nail salon, and a Latino taxi driver. We are confronted with issues of loss, poverty, hoarding, hopelessness, grief, adoption, ineptitude, physical and mental health, the foster care system, and the importance of community. There’s a lot of meat in there, and due to Willow’s orphan situation, it’s definitely a page turner.
It’s not a perfect book; I admit. I was disappointed by the unbelievable tidiness of the ending, and the ease with which a number of miracles occur throughout the novel. But these imperfections in no way detract from the vivid descriptions of a twelve-year-old coping with loss, the power of relationships, and the possibility for change and growth in the most hopeless of circumstances. Gardening as practice and metaphor is perhaps even more central to the book than the number seven. An acorn figures prominently in ways that still make my eyes leak, though I read the book several months ago.
I highly recommend it, as do my ten- and twelve-year-old. When I asked what they liked about the book, Miss Twelve looked at me strangely. “Everything,” she said, perplexed by my idiotic question. For the parent of an incredibly picky tween, that was an unusual and exciting response to get, let me tell you.
Now to find the next great book. Any suggestions?
When I hear Miss Twelve saying, “You wouldn’t understand”–a phrase I was sure I had invented in my youth–I wonder if it might be a good time to find a kids’ novel that delves into the mind of the parents of middle schoolers. Just so they don’t think we’re the aliens.