I recently received an ARC of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s, a new middle grade/young adult novel due out this August. The book follows twelve-year-old Willow Chance, a child genius who takes care of the sprawling garden in her backyard and diagnoses medical conditions (mainly skin conditions) for fun. When her parents die suddenly in a car crash, Willow is left alone, navigating the foster care system under the care of her caseworker. It is clear that Willow is an exceptional and special young girl, and the people that she meets along the way in the novel recognize that too.
To avoid seeing Willow end up at the Jamison Children’s Center (where she would live until she found a more permanent foster situation), two unlikely individuals come together to take her under their temporary care. The first is Dell Duke, a guidance counselor Willow has been mandated to see on a regular basis. He has invented a color-coded system that categorizes every child and teenager he sees into made-up categories, a system that allowed him to check out of his job on day one. After getting a perfect score on a series of challenging tests when she starts at a new school, and finishing all of them well under the full length of time given to write them, Willow is accused of cheating and sent to Dell. She keeps the truth hidden – that she didn’t cheat at all, she is just an extraordinary girl – and sees Duke anyway. While waiting outside his office, she meets another pair of teenagers, Mai and Quang-ha, Vietnamese siblings who live in the garage behind their mother’s nail salon. Their mother, Pattie, becomes Willow’s other guardian, and they grow to become an extended, mismatched family.
I loved the structure of the story, as Goldberg Sloan takes the reader alternately through Willow’s past and present, as well as the past and the present of the other characters in the book. Although Willow has a first-person perspective when she narrates, the other characters pick up the story in a secondhand, third person, way. It is always clear that Willow is the protagonist of the story, but that the other characters have just as much to say as she does. Duke Dell, who at times seems like a horrible character, became my favorite person by the end. The book is ultimately about belonging, and the families that people make for themselves. Willow’s narration is no-nonsense and straightforward, but it dips into nuance and description at just the right times. Willow also imparts an unbelievable amount of information about the things that she loves throughout the novel, about medical conditions and plants, math and languages. The way these characters transform one another (without even meaning to!) is so believable and moving, and the ways that they wove their lives together has stayed with me long after putting down the book.