Willow has lost her parents twice in twelve years. She was given up for adoption at birth, and as this novel opens, her beloved adoptive parents have died in a car crash. She has no living relatives and no real friends.
Because Willow attained a perfect score on an achievement test, the school administration has decided that she cheated and assigned her to a weekly session with the completely inept school counselor, Dell Duke. Even Dell can see that this strange girl is a genius, if for no other reason than that she learned Vietnamese in a week in order to communicate with his other students, Quang-ha Nguyen and his older sister, Mai. Willow looks up to the rebellious Mai, a high school student who takes good care of her younger brother and has a dictatorial attitude toward Dell. When Willow’s parents die, it is Mai who decides to take her home to her mother, the take-charge owner of Happy Polish Nails. Together, the Nguyens, Dell Duke, and an unsuspecting taxi driver move mountains to recreate Willow’s life, and end up turning their own lives upside-down, as well.
Counting by 7s is a moving novel of grief and loss, healing and growth. Willow’s entire world crashes to nothing in one moment, and she does not know how to become herself again, nor does she care. Although Willow is a genius, unlike many of the super-smart children in today’s novels, she does not have Asperger’s Syndrome. Her high level of intelligence and her deep interest in gardening and medical issues have made it easier for her to relate to adults, however, and she has only ever had one friend her own age. She is a sweet and empathetic child, and every life she touches seems to improve in some way.
Other than Willow, most of the characters in this book are adults, and in a real departure for children’s books, some of the chapters are told from their perspective. If I have one quibble with this novel, it is that the chapters—at least in the advance reader copy—do not have headings, and even though Willow’s chapters are in first person and everyone else’s are in third, I sometimes had to read a paragraph or two to figure out whose head we were in at the time. The community in the book is very naturally portrayed as multicultural, with some affectionate smiles at the Vietnamese belief in luck and omens. As a matter of fact, there is a gentle sort of humor throughout the story.
Counting by 7s shows how Willow slowly rediscovers the deepest parts of herself that she had lost with her parents’ death. All of the characters evolve, but each one grows in an entirely different way from each other and from the way they were in the past. Life may knock us flat, but if we’re able to get up, we will still be the same person in essence, only transformed by passing through fire. We cannot return to our former selves, but we can move forward with hard work and a lot of love. Willow finds hope, and she passes that hope on to others.
This is a lovely novel, and another serious contender for the Newbery Medal. Although not as lyrically styled as Flora & Ulysses, it is beautifully written and deserving of its many starred reviews. Besides, it is not quite as quirky as F&U, and the Newbery Committee often does not look favorably upon quirkiness. One to watch.
Highly recommended for 10 and up.
Disclaimer: I read a (signed!) advance reader copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.