Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan was a popular book in my 5th grade class last year. It was one of those books that students asked to read even though it was above most of their reading levels.
Intended for students in grade 5 and up, Counting By 7s is the remarkable story about Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius whose adoptive parents are killed in a car accident at the very beginning of the story. Though Willow is highly intelligent, she has a difficult time navigating social interactions. To say that she is misunderstood is an understatement. For example, she aces a school test, and is then recommended for counseling because the administration thinks she cheated. At the same time, Willow is unusual. She learns Vietnamese in order to impress a new friend, Mai. She is an expert botanist, with an unprecedented appreciation for plants.
Through the story the reader is challenged to examine the little things, or perhaps the more subtle things, in life.
“Open your eyes, people. This is amazing. If plants made sounds, it would all be different. But they communicate with color and shape and size and texture. They don’t meow or bark or tweet. We think they don’t have eyes, but they see the angle of the sun and the rise of the moon. They don’t just feel the wind; they change because of it. Before you think I’m crazy (which is always a possibility), look outside. Right now. I’m hoping that your view isn’t of a parking lot or the side of a building.”
(As I read Counting By 7s, I found myself literally laughing out loud many times. This was just one of them.)
Willow moves in with Mai, her mother Pattie and her brother Quang-ha. Pattie is a strong woman who owns her own nail salon. She wishes the only color nail polish they used was red, since it symbolizes luck. Pattie shows us that sometimes you have to take a chance and open your heart, and in this case home, to someone in need. Throughout the story, she provides the voice of reason. She responds to challenges quickly and with confidence. Pattie says, “What we expect rarely occurs; what we don’t expect is what happens,” which summarizes not only what is happening in the story, but what happens in our lives.
For many of the characters, Willow brings about positive changes, not before forcing them to take a hard look at their lives and take responsibility for their actions. One by one, the characters confront their obstacles and they gain the courage to move forward. At one point, Mai’s brother Quang-ha, with whom Willow has had a strained relationship, says, “I don’t want to know how you did it. I want to believe that you’re magic.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review about The Book Thief and I said, if you read just one more book…, well now I’m revising that to say, please read two more books. Holly Goldberg Sloan brings to life several complex characters in this heartbreaking then heart-mending story. This is a story about life and loss, friendship and love, and having the strength and courage to move forward.