Monday, July 7, 2014

Counting by 7's: A Review

Counting by 7's was published in
2013 by the Penguin Group.
This summer, I am working as a summer reading assistant at the Williamsburg Regional Library.  My primary job includes conferencing with young readers about the books they've recorded, which gives me an opportunity to learn about new and popular children's literature.  One of the books that has frequently appeared on the lists of middle school readers is Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan, a novel that focuses on a young genius - Willow Chance - who is obsessed with skin diseases and gardening. 

When she was a baby, she was adopted by her mother and father and has grown up in the Southern California desert.  She doesn't have many friends, but she prefers listening to the wind bellow between her extraordinary garden in the backyard, which is more a result of her scientific research than a green thumb.  She understands more about the lives of plants than she does the lives of her peers, and she is skeptical of formal education ever since her kindergarten teacher read her a book about saying "good night" to the indifferent moon. 

However, when Willow scores 100% on a standardized test and is accused of cheating, she is sent to a behavioral counselor, Dell Duke, who is a highly unmotivated individual content to play games on his computer while his clients sit in his office and sulk.  Worlds collide when Dell meets Willow and categorizes her as a "genius" and when Willow meets another of Dell's clients named Quang-ha and his sister, Mai.  After the sudden death of her parents in a car crash, Willow's world comes to an end, as she loses the two people she has loved more than anything.  She searches for books at the library about children who lose two parents at the same time, but of course, she can't find any because it just isn't possible!  But with the help of her new friends, and with friendship blooming in unlikely places, Willow just might survive the heartbreak, while those around her experience their own transformations. 

The cast of characters in Counting by 7's are diverse and lovable, shocking and inspirational.  They each have a permanent impact on each other and progress as people in believable ways as the novel continues.  Willow has been crafted in the vain of other recent literacy geniuses I have encountered (such as Colin Singleton in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines), only without any conceit or arrogance.  She doesn't seem aware of her genius.  She notices and appreciates the small nuisance of other people around her and is sensitive to their needs.  At times, she filters her thoughts so as not to offend anyone, though she is not always successful at these attempts.  (For example, she tells Mr. Duke to check his blood pressure after their first meeting; she also saves her taxi driver's life by suggesting that he have a small mole on the back of his neck removed and thereby becomes his "angel" in another side story that is woven seamlessly throughout her tragedy.) 

When Willow considers Pattie, the mother of Quang-ha and Mai who agrees to care for Willow temporarily, she praises Pattie's silence, writing, "She is like me.  Silent.  I admire that in a person.  The ability to keep your mouth shut is usually a sign of intelligence.  Introspection requires you to think and analyze.  It's hard to do that when you are blabbing away."  Interestingly, it is true that most of what readers know about Willow is what they learn from her narration, as she really does not speak a lot through the novel, especially after undergoing tragedy.  But when she does use her words, she has the power to make a difference.  Although some of the characters' actions are quite despicable (Dell Duke pretending to rescue a cat and then letting it fend for itself in the school garbage bin, for example), I found myself rooting for them in the end. 

Along with intriguing characters, Counting by 7's is a great read because it is told in a poetic voice by an introspective twelve-year-old that entices readers to believe in hope.  Throughout the novel, I told myself that the connections between the characters wouldn't last.  It's impossible, I thought, yet I hoped.  I hoped that the characters could continue to live life, day after day, just as they were doing.  I didn't want to turn the pages for fear that their pretend perfect life would come crashing down.  Hope is a common theme present in this novel, along with the theory that all actions are related to each other.  The themes of this novel make it comparable to the most recent book I have blogged about, The Tale of Despereaux.  Although the stories inside are drastically different, both feature smaller-than-average heroes navigating through the "mine-field" of life.  The difference is that the people around Willow keep hoping before and long after she has given up, while Despereaux must remain hopeful even when the odds are against him.

The only criticism that I have of the book is that some of the events are almost too unbelievable; some elements of the characters just don't connect.  For example, (spoiler alert!) readers learn that Pattie has quite a lot of money saved and is rather wealthy, yet she and her children live in a one-room garage on the "wrong side of the tracks."  Pattie's actions prove that she is a loving, pro-active, and hardworking mother, yet I wonder why she would submit her children to this difficult and uncomfortable lifestyle if she was able to provide them something better.  Certainly, the rent of a two-bedroom apartment would be feasible for a woman with her means and would certainly accommodate her teenagers better than the small, cramped space that they are forced to call home. 

I also wonder why the principal accuses Willow of cheating on the standardized test in the first place.  I mean, this isn't the nineties, so I feel like there should have been two-way communication regarding this matter.  (And the story takes place in present day to be sure with references to Facebook and other present-day commodities.)  Wouldn't she have at least been tested for a gifted program?  At this point in her education career, wouldn't she have been identified as a gifted student?  Certainly this standardized test wasn't the first activity at school that made her stand out amongst her peers!  Of course, if the principal hadn't jumped to conclusions, Willow would not have met Dell, and the story would not have transpired as it did.  But still, as a teacher, it's difficult to read about other teachers and workers in education short-changing students in such ways.

Despite these small inconsistencies, the characters of Counting by 7's make for an interesting literacy bunch that I will not soon forget.  If you'd like to spend some time with them, check out the novel for yourself at your local library.

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