The fourth of five selections for our summer 2017 study of Young Adult books, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is the story of Willow, a 12-year-old girl who loses both parents in a tragic accident and ends up finding a new family in unexpected places.
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Here is my video reflection, followed by a few notes:
- Counting by 7s is just a really good read, a character-driven book that also happens to have a compelling plot line. While I do think it would serve as a perfectly solid subject for a study on character development, Freytag’s pyramid, textual evidence of all stripes, and narrative writing, I also think it is one of those books that people just love to read, period.
- I adore Willow as a character. The way she processes things—especially human emotions, including her own—reminds me of Star Trek‘s Data or a softer version of Silicon Valley‘s Laurie Bream. Her ability to distance herself slightly from emotionally difficult situations might really resonate with some readers, and for others it might provide a different way of handling situations that might otherwise knock them off their feet. I also liked the fact that despite her slightly unemotional way of looking at the world, she also had lots of incredibly vulnerable moments and was able to connect with every other character quite deeply.
- This is another book with a lot of strong female characters. If you happen to be building a library or collection of books with strong female characters, this one would definitely have a place there. Willow, Pattie, and Mai all take decisive action throughout the book, moves that really develop the plot and powerfully influence the lives of those around them.
- I found it curious that the author chose not to spend much time exploring the characters of Willow’s parents, or delve into her history with them. They are introduced almost as a necessity to explain “what happened,” and Willow occasionally refers to them, but with her sharp observational and analytical skills, I find it hard to believe she wouldn’t think more about them over the course of this book. I get that the story isn’t really about the past, but about Willow’s present and possible future with the book’s major characters, but having no one even really bring them up at all seems unrealistic.
What did you think about the book? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
This book was great! I did not pace myself with this one-I finished it in a couple of days. When I first started reading I assumed Willow was a young lady on the autism spectrum with her differences in how she sees things socially and her highly focused interests and knowledge. When they diagnosed giftedness, that worked for me too. She’s a product of her environment and her amazing brain. But not only was Willow a super interesting character, so were others; Mai, Patty, Dell, Jairo and even grumbly Quang Ha. They all had personalities that I appreciated and their circumstances just helped me feel for their different situations. I rooted for them. The chapter where they cleaned out Dell’s apartment was hilarious! The wall of underwear–I laughed out loud at Willow’s description. Overall I just really wanted them all to succeed, for Willow to find people who would care about her, and for everyone else to improve their lives. I cried when Quang Ha said she was magic. I kind of felt the same way. I didn’t have a problem with the lack of parent conversation–because even without the diagnosis of autism, I felt that she wasn’t comfortable with her feelings-understanding or sharing them-she was clearly sad, but she described it in a way I expected for her. It would be interesting to ask kids how they felt about her lack of communication about her feelings. I personally don’t think she could do it. When she started feeling better, she communicated more and she started picking up her interests again. Another great book!
I totally loved Quang Ha.
I agree with a lot of your comments, and I also had thought that Willow could be on the autism spectrum.
I noticed the lack of inter-character discussion about Willow’s loss and also that the author spent very little time looking at inevitable social challenges at school.
At any rate, neither of those points troubled me. Understanding that the character’s diagnosis was ‘Gifted’ rather than ‘Autism Spectrum’, is useful as it is known that the first can mimic features of the second.
And so I can easily accept that peer disapproval of her unusual attire, behavior or speech style might not seem relevant to such a personality; and not being relevant to her, we would not receive that information through the first person narrative that represents her inner monologue.
I felt the same about her loss; it was something that she processed internally, in her own way. We see this early on, in her note for example, requesting certain medications. For her, that was enough sharing, she did the rest internally, drawing on her broad medical knowledge and with self reflection and metaphor.
I really enjoyed this book! Like the previous commenter, I too read it in just a couple of days. I like the pacing of the plot. I also liked the length of the chapters as they felt like small glances or windows into the characters and events. Willow was just adorable. The quirks of each character made them so believable. I had a really hard time with Dell’s character. I just struggled to find anything redeeming about him. I know that part of the point was to really give the audience a feel for how lost he was – but man, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to be saved! Love the underlying story of how one truly lost girl ended up being the compass home for so many others! What a remarkable book!
I understand your dislike of Dell, but I thought that was an interesting part of the story, seeing how all the characters really needed each other. In their efforts to help Willow, their own lives were changed for the better. Definitely makes it a feel good read!
I have a question. I have to fill out a sheet for my hw and it says how has the characters changed over willows parents death.For example like if dell has matured and how quang ha has become less lonley.Can you please tell me cuz im struggling a little.
I definitely felt the same way about Dell for most of the book, but I started to turn around when he was so willing to have Pattie’s family just move in, sending him down the hall. Not everyone would go along with that, and the way he just kept hanging around, watching TV with Quang Ha and just sort of participating in family life, it really made him more endearing to me. The way he reacted in that scene near the end (in the library with Willow) sealed the deal for me.
It looks like a movie version of this book was in the works, but everything I find online is kind of a dead end now…I guess it got stalled for some reason? Anyway, I would love to see who they’d get to play Dell, because I think his character is actually one of the most complex ones in the story. I think Paul Giamatti would crush it.
Paul Giamotti would be awesome! Good call!
I know it is five years later but I had to chime in… Paul Giamotti is all I thought about when thinking of Dell Duke’s character. You probably forgot about this book already!
I’d like to describe this read as “fun” with the exception of the main character’s parents dying on the eighth page. Through the eyes of Willow Chance, I felt tragedy like no young adult protagonist ever before. She doesn’t just feel it with her heart, she’s so dang smart she feels it with her genius brain too. This ride hits both the feely feels and the episodic adventures.
I just finished the book today and already I miss being in a garden built on hope with Willow, Quang-Ha’s stained glass skylight, the toxic fume-ridden shop of dictator Pattie, the comfortable taxicab with Jairo. I miss Dell’s inability to adult but extraordinary ability to show up when he needs to. I miss Mai’s looks that communicate everything. I miss the capturing prose of Holly Goldberg Sloan who is killing it with memorable characters.
I collected some of my favorite quotations that highlight all the things I love about Willow Chance. I’ll add some of them to my anchor text database for character. She was quite a character! http://www.imthatteacher.com/countingby7s
Oh I LOVE these quotes! I got so absorbed in the story that I did no underlining at all in this book, which is so rare for me. You picked out some really good ones.
Also, this–“Dell’s inability to adult but extraordinary ability to show up when he needs to.”–brought tears to my eyes. It’s what I was trying to say in an earlier comment (up there ^) but didn’t have the words for it. That’s what I loved about him.
So Dell is super interesting. My theory at the end was that all the principal characters are on the gifted spectrum. Each struggling with atypicalities that can be misdiagnosed, misunderstood and mistreated. It seemed to me that Dell was struggling with executive functioning issues; inability to organise his life, work, career… it can mask a person’s potential so completely, and is a terrible shame. I was glad that he seemed to be waking up to his own life towards the end of the story, but of all the characters, I felt that he needed the most help, and had the longest journey to recovery ahead of him. It was very moving.
Ok, I’m super excited to talk about this book! I teach highly gifted middle and high school kids, and I just finished my masters thesis on how gifted girls are portrayed in several books for young adolescents. Counting by 7s is one of the books I studied, so I was really excited that you chose this book for the summer.
There are a lot of things that I really love about Willow. The author does a great job of demonstrating her single-mindedness and self-confidence while still humanizing her. In many ways, she reminds me of some kids that I’ve had in class.
When I was doing my research last spring, though, I found some troubling aspects in the novel. Specifically, Willow embodies some of the characteristics of the “magical negro” trope. (Critic Matthew Hughey defines the trope as a “latently racist” character who is a “lower-class, uneducated black person who possess supernatural or magical powers. These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people.”) Although they are not all white, Dell, Quang-Ha, and Jairo all use words like “magical” or “angel” to describe Willow’s interventions in their lives. The mechanisms for the improvements in these men’s lives are always either Willow’s giftedness (knowing to diagnose Jairo’s mole, for example), or Pattie’s tenacity.
As a teacher of gifted kids, I see my students often feeling very different and alienated from a lot of their age peers. And while I really like a lot about the book, the subtle way that giftedness is equated with otherness, strangeness, and mysterious powers concerns me.
Liz, thanks so much for contributing such thought-provoking stuff here. That trope you mentioned was unfamiliar to me, but as soon as you described it, I recognized it from other texts. A quick Google search reminded me of The Green Mile, The Family Man, Ghost, etc. I think it’s a fair question to raise, but so many of the characters in this story are thoroughly unique and defy stereotypes; if the “magical negro” trope is at work here, I would guess that it doesn’t match the typical pattern.
Also, and ultimately, Willow isn’t magical at all. She’s just ridiculously smart, ridiculously observant. That allows her to see things others don’t.
Regardless, it’s a valid point to bring up. If I sound like I’m pushing back, it’s just because I loved the story and the characters so much, I feel the need to defend them as people, rather than label them as stock characters.
The larger concern, about giftedness being portrayed as strange and “other,” is also valid. I guess the question I would raise is whether Sloan is creating this otherness or just illustrating that reality in her story? I would like to hear others’ thoughts on this one as well.
This was a very interesting contribution to the discussion. Such valuable background information. Your students are fortunate to have you!
This book reminded me a bit of Wonder by Raquel J. Palacio and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I suppose my link to The Bean Trees is the shared extended metaphor of putting down roots (with gardening as a focus) and making a family within your community. The link to Wonder is the brilliant MS-aged protagonist who is different than others and seems to be much wiser and insightful than a typical MS student.
I liked that the book shifted perspectives and actually wanted to know a lot more about the taxi driver, Jairo, and the mother, Pattie, than we were given. I appreciate when a story has enough interesting characters that other stories could easily branch off it. If using this book in a classroom, this is an opportunity for students to write and develop the story of the other characters and possibly explore other text types as well.
Do you think that the author wrote in the diagnosis scene to suggest that the death was going to happen anyway? It seemed like an odd choice to have them die after the diagnosis. Melodramatic?
Nevertheless, I thought it was a good read. As a high school teacher, I don’t see me recommending it to my students. It is definitely for middle school. However, I love a good read and this one did the trick! I find myself looking at sunflowers with even greater respect as a result of this book too.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Funny, I’m sure we have it at our junior high library, but I don’t recall any conversations about it. I will definitely recommend it this year while I work as a library assistant one period a day.
It was quirky and emotive, and I found myself cheering for Willow and all of her supporters as the story unfolded and developed. In fact, it was such an interesting read that I started and finished it in a few days while I was away at a conference! I couldn’t wait to settle in each night and pick up with Willow’s story.
When we return to school in late-August, I am going to share Counting by 7s with the gifted enrichment teachers and the Student Assistance Program (SAP) members. They may or may not have read it, but if any of them haven’t, I think it is a terrific read that they may identify.
I am so enchanted by the way that every character seems at first to be just out-of-sync and yet each becomes a hero in small and large ways. I have stopped reading with 25 pages left. I don’t want this story to end; I know that I will read it again for the nuances that I perceived only dimly the first time.