Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7sWe sit together outside the Fosters Freeze at a sea-green, metal picnic table. All four of us. We eat soft ice cream, which has been plunged into a vat of liquid chocolate (that then hardens into a crispy shell). I don't tell anyone that what makes this work is wax. Or to be more accurate: edible, food-grade paraffin wax.

"Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now. Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read."

There are some middle grade novels that are still very lovely to read even if you're older than the intended age group, like The Tale of Despereaux, which is just gorgeous. Counting by 7s isn't as good as that, and it's a very different type of book, but I nonetheless enjoyed it a lot. I haven't read Mockingbird, but I will say that this book seems very, very similar in terms of both books having a different and highly intelligent young narrator who has many quirks (counting by 7s, etc) who has to cope with a terrible tragedy. Out of My Mind also sounds somewhat similar; I might read both of those books when I get the chance. They seem amazing too, if somewhat unoriginal. 

Still, I loved the narration in Counting by 7s which was, I think, distinctive. There were also so many great characters, each getting their turn narrating, although of course the book's mostly from Willow's point of view. Willow herself was a great character; she's highly intelligent, but still kind of young and unable to contextualize things sometimes. She also sometimes doesn't realize when it's best to keep her intelligence hidden in certain settings. Obsessed by all things medical, Willow also keeps an extensive garden behind her house, carefully, meticulously ordering her world which centers around 7s. Of course, the accident changes everything, and she can't just line up her life again. Willow is quite odd, and probably would be difficult to get along with. I imagine one would always feel sort of intellectually inferior, at least in certain areas. Some of Willow's observations were spot-on though, without her even seeming to realize it. Some of the parts were a bit over-the-top, such as the whole story-line with the taxi driver, but it was kind of sweet. Willow inadvertently helps a lot of people get their lives back on track, and so when she needs some help, they're ready to come to her aid.

Despite the tragedy in the book, it's remarkably hopeful. It's not a tearful read at all, even though Willow's predicament is pretty awful, and one does feel for her deeply. I thought Counting by 7s might be a bit depressing, but it's really not. And the new Vietnamese family that Willow starts to join is very different from her previous one, but still great. This aspect was interesting, because Willow herself is black, but her adopted parents were white. And now she's sort of moving in with this Vietnamese family whose daughter she just moved in with. There's also the odd counselor, Dell Duke, assigned to deal with Willow's "behavioral" problems which consist of a false accusation of cheating. I actually didn't like him as a character; he was weird and probably the most unlikable, but still another important piece to the story. It is with Dell Duke, Mai, and Quang-ha that she first finds out the news about the accident, and that was certainly very purposeful on the author's part.

The premise of the book is kind of cliche, but I felt that Holly Sloan executed it pretty well, and it had just enough unique elements to make it interesting, entertaining, and thoughtful. It cannot be argued that Counting by 7s is an odd little book, and I'm not sure if its intended younger readers will like it much; Holly Sloan turns the cliche upside down so much that the story is kind of hard to get into; it goes a bit slowly and is a rather introverted novel. I, however, liked it a lot. It's a quick but beautiful read, even though some parts had me (inwardly) rolling my eyes just a bit.

378 pages.

Rating: ****

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