“What we expect rarely occurs; what we don’t expect is what happens.” This simple, realistic truth reveals the essence of this deeply affecting novel.
Willow Chance is twelve years old, which can be a tough time for any kid and Willow isn’t any kid. She is eccentric, alternatively obsessed with rare medical conditions, botany, and the number 7. When she meets someone new, she analyzes their potential maladies. When she is stressed, she finds sanctuary in her beloved garden. And when she need to make sense of the world, she counts it by 7s. Her school counselor determines that she breaks his classification system. She is a category unto herself – a genius.
Willow is an adopted child with wonderfully supportive parents. They embrace her eccentricities and support her interests. They try to find a school where she might be accepted, although we all know what a minefield middle school can be for an offbeat child.
From the opening pages of the novel, tragedy strikes. Willow comes home to find a police car in the driveway. Her parents have died in a traffic accident, and Willow suddenly loses her whole world, finding herself uprooted and alone. The once gregarious and captivating girl turns within to guard against her pain. When all seems lost, Willow is swept into a new unofficial – and sometimes dysfunctional – family who help her regain her moorings.
The novel revolves around the formation of this found family. It starts with a new friend, Mai, and expands to include Mai’s gruff big brother, Quang-ha, and their fiercely independent mother, Pattie. Out of necessity, it folds in the bumbling school counselor, Dell Duke, and his cat, Cheddar. After Willow saves him from an unknown melanoma, the taxi driver Jairo Hernandez completes the unit. Together, this unexpected group of individuals, all with their own quirks and foibles, forms a real family that is stronger than the sum of its parts, even if it takes them a while to realize it.
Counting by 7s is a story of loss, growth, and extraordinary ability. Holly Goldberg Sloan beautifully crafts a tale that takes the reader on Willow’s journey from deep sadness and isolation to a sense of peace that comes from having a place in a family – whatever shape that family may take.
Middle school audiences will devour Counting by 7s because it reassures readers that they, too, can survive adversity. Along the way, students may find themselves becoming more accepting of others, more willing to understand that everyone is facing some sort of battle.