Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I mentioned a week or so ago that I was in a reading slump. Hours after I posted that, I ran into a friend in the supermarket, who was with her 11-year-old daughter, Stella. Stella suggested that I read Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and as my reading situation had been so lack lustre I figured that taking Stella’s advice would be a wise move – change of pace and all that.

It was a wise move. Counting by 7s is a lovely, different, melancholy story for tweens/ young adults.

In summary, it’s the story of Willow, a twelve-year-old girl who is obsessed with gardening and diagnosing medical conditions. She also takes comfort in counting by 7s. It’s clear from the outset that Willow isn’t an ordinary girl – she’s gifted, a loner and a worrier.

“Because in my opinion it’s not really a great idea to see people as one thing. Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-king creation. We are all imperfect genetic stews.”

And then Willow’s parents are tragically killed in a car crash (that’s not a spoiler, it happens at the beginning), leaving her very much alone.

I don’t read a lot in the tween genre (obviously I did at one stage… in the eighties…) so I’m loathe to make comparisons. However, unlike other books I’ve read aimed at tweens, Counting by 7s kept me guessing – I couldn’t see an easy path for Willow and satisfyingly, the story played out right up until the final pages.

Sloan creates vivid and memorable characters and, most significantly, builds believable relationships between these characters – I particularly liked the dynamic between Willow and Jairo (a taxi-driver), and Dell and Quang-ha (a school counselor and fellow student respectively).

“Quang-ho has the television remote, and he moves through the channels in a way that a grandmother might turn the pages of a speedboat catalogue featuring water skis. There is not much stopping for analysis.”

Some of the analogies were a little obvious (the use of gardens to symbolise grieving in particular) but that’s me being an adult. I suspect they would have resonated well with younger readers. Overall, the issue of grief is handled appropriately.

“The guy on the radio doesn’t know I lost my parents. He’s just selling cheap rubber wheels. The person who put the clothes in the dryer has no idea that I need a foster home.”

4/5 Not your ordinary tween story.

Willow is a vegetarian but she’s also polite (and therefore eats Vietnamese soup that most certainly has meat in it) –

“And so I take small sips that taste salty, like drinking someone’s cloudy tears.”

Try this recipe for Phở Gà.


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