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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Stories about genuinely different kids trying to fit in always seem to resonate with me. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s is no exception. Like many of these stories, fitting in is always the goal in the beginning, but by the end of the novel that goal seems to be so utterly beyond the point. It’s the ultimate middle grade MacGuffin – it gives us cause to empathize with our protagonist, but by the end we so love and understand them that we no longer see how the world at large cannot.
Willow Chance is an extraordinary twelve-year-old. She is a genius with an obsessive personality. She obsessively gardens. She obsessively diagnoses herself and those around her with various medical conditions. And she obsessively counts by 7s. All of these habits exist to calm an anxious mind. So when Willow’s parents die very early in the novel the reader worries just how much her already delicate psyche can undergo.

Losing your parents at twelve-years-old would be devastating to any kid. It’s the collapse of the only world you have ever known. But to lose your parents who are also your only friends because the other kids at school just don’t get you? And to lose your parents just as you are entering a new school where the teachers are suspicious of your intelligence? To lose your parents when you have absolutely no one else? It is practically unimaginable. But Willow meets Mai Nguyen who takes her under wing and shepherds Willow into a new life.

There is a large cast of characters here as Willow’s personality tends to alarm and then completely disarm everyone she meets. That she is so different, unable to affect pretense or fake her way through social norms she doesn’t understand, is refreshing. Both the people she meets in the story and the readers of it feel compelled to keep her from further harm.

Counting by 7s is a great story about people growing into the best versions of themselves in order to support one another. Willow’s journey away from and back to counting 7s is a testament to family in all of its forms. The characters Holly Goldberg Sloan has created draw you in because of, not in spite of, their differences and their challenges. This is a story of flawed, damaged people and with it Sloan is able to convey to her young readers how important it is to hold each other together. Willow does eventually find her place in the world, not through fitting in but, like the seven colors of the rainbow and the seven important people in her life, by being “vivid and distinct.”

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