Belonging. That's a pretty basic and essential need for all of us. We belong to a family, a race, a school, a team. As we grow up, we search for the next place where we will fit in and belong with the right partner and the right job. For children belonging is like breathing. They are vulnerable little people and they need to belong.
Willow Chase is adopted. She landed with two people who love her and cherish her genius and her uniqueness. So, on the day that a medical delivery truck runs a red light and kills both of Willow's parents in a violent crash, Willow is left alone in the world.
Her world is already a little wacky. With her off the charts IQ, Willow scored a never seen before perfect score on the standardized IQ test her school gives everyone. The school accuses Willow of cheating and sends her to counseling with a never-been-right guy named Dell Duke.
Willow is brilliant and unpredictable and usually in control of whatever life hands her. She can handle many adult sized projects and challenges and does so routinely as her story unfolds whether it's designing light layouts or writing proposals for banks.
This is a story of misfits and people who aren't easy to categorize. It's a story of a taxi driver who was selling himself short and a Vietnamese immigrant who is working determinedly to make a life for herself and her two children while they live in a garage.
But most of all, this is a story about how we have a deep and powerful need to belong and as we watch Willow be tossed about by the vagaries of life, we are so afraid she will never find a place where she can get what she needs and deserves.
Fascinating and unfamiliar characters drive this story of love. Wit and wisdom pepper the action. Holly Goldberg Sloan writes screenplays and you can easily see this book making its way onto the big screen with audiences around the world falling in love with Willow and making that great big Tinkerbell wish that Willow will take this incredible journey and discover some arms that will reach around her and hold her tight for as long she lives.
Recommended by: Barb
"We are stardust, we are golden
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden"
-- Joni Mitchell
"My hometown, like a lot of the central valley of California, has a desert climate and is flat and dry and very hot for over half of the year.
"Since I've never lived anywhere else, whole months of days when it's 100 degrees outside seems normal.
"We call it summer.
"Despite the heat, there is no escaping the fact that the bright sun and rich soil make the area ideal for growing things once you add water to the equation.
"And I did.
"So where once our house had a rectangle of grass, there is now a forty-foot-high stand of timber bamboo.
"I have citrus trees (orange, grapefruit, and lime) next to my year-round vegetable garden.
"I grow grapes, a variety of vines, annual and perennial flowers, and, in one small area, tropical plants.
"To know me is to know my garden.
"It is my sanctuary."
Meet twelve year-old black, bespectacled, self-aware genius and gardener Willow Chase, who is obsessed with the number 7; obsessed with studying and observing medical conditions, and obsessed with plants. Not long into the story, Willow is suddenly thrown out of the Garden when her white adoptive parents die in a horrific car accident.
Leading up to the accident, Willow has, herself, been following a collision course that begins with being referred by her school principal to a counselor named Dell Duke, this being the result of the principal's determination that Willow has cheated on a State standardized test. (She completed the test in 17 minutes and was the only student in the State to answer every question correctly, which might provide a clue as to why she hasn't been at all engaged with middle school, other than as a silent observer of bizarre behaviors.)
Counselor Dell Duke (who categorizes the students he works with as THE STRANGE, MISFITS, ODDBALLS, and LONE WOLVES), quickly learns that he needs a whole new category for this young woman. And in the wake of Willow's second loss of parents in her short life (having already been adopted the first time), it will be counselor Dell Duke; plus one of the other students he works with named Nguyen Quang-ha; plus Quang-ha's sister Nguyen Thi Mai; plus Quang-ha and Mai's mother Pattie; plus a taxi driver named Jairo Hernandez; who will affect and be affected by this amazing girl.
COUNTING BY 7s reminds me of BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE because of the way that Willow is saved from going to the pound (being thrown into The System) by unlikely heroine Pattie Nguyen, (Quang-ha and Mai's mother), the Vietnamese immigrant proprietress of a nail salon. Like India Opal Buloni's decision in the moment to lie about the stray dog and claim ownership, Pattie lies about her relationship to Willow, who she's just met, and this sets the stage for a profound and moving story in which a whole group of idiosyncratic characters are brought together, find family and community, and have their lives enriched and changed forever by this amazing genius of a girl.
"I pulled my wheeled luggage to the cab door and leaned in through the open window as I said: 'I would like the number of your taxi license and to see proof of your compliance with brake and headlight adjustment requirements.'
"The driver's name was Jairo Hernandez, and he had been driving for Mexicano Taxi for seven years."
I particularly love how taxi driver Jairo Hernandez virtually hits the lottery again and again for having randomly and so fortunately encountered Willow on that first taxi ride.
(And I love how what comes around goes around.)
COUNTING BY 7s also makes me think of Natalie Merchant singing of people struggling and fighting for the simple pleasures in their lives. This is a tale of at-risk kids and at-risk adults, and it makes it that much sweeter to see what comes to them all because of Willow Chase.
One final note: The cover of COUNTING BY 7s, in which a bright red fish is seen swimming again a large school of nondescript fish, is notable, engaging, and perfect for what is contained in these 384 pages that had me swimming right along with Willow from beginning to end.
A big-time middle school read.
Editor's Note: Ages 11 and up (a strong 5th grader could do it) 384 pages 978-0-8037-3855-3
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, Instructor, San Jose State, California USA
Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, just starting public school. She likes diagnosing medical conditions and counting by sevens. When she aces the standardized English test for her grade, the school is convinced she has cheated and they send her to counselor Dell Duke. Willow has found it difficult to connect with anyone, yet at Dell Duke’s office she meets Mai and her brother Quang-Ha, and they create a connection that will sustain Willow in the wake of her parents’ sudden death. Willow is allowed to temporarily live with Mai and her family. It is in Mai’s mother’s nail also that Willow begins to heal, and that an odd new family is created.
Great read alike for OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper or WONDER by R.J. Palacio
Recommended by: Alice Cyphers, Librarian, Pennsylvania USA