In the interest of full disclosure, know that I read this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) that I did not have to pay for. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I work in a bookstore, where our basement is periodically overflowing with ARCs. The fact that the book was free doesn’t influence my review; we get sent a lot of terrible books, and I won’t tell you to go read any of those.
Also, I won’t spoil anything that isn’t revealed in the first chapter or on the back of the cover.
The Penguin rep for our store gave this book to me when I asked if she had any recommendations for new, non-fantasy young adult books. Reps tend to be pretty intense about books that they like, which only makes sense – after all, their job is to talk people into buying books. However, she was even more excited than usual about this book. Plus, she compared it to After Iris by Natasha Farrant (another recent middle-grade novel that I loved), AND THEN SAID THAT THIS WAS BETTER.
To be honest, I assumed that part was a bit of rep-ish BS. It wasn’t.
In Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan writes about overwhelming loss with a clarity and simplicity that keeps it appropriate for the target age of 10-14 while maintaining a depth of emotion that will appeal to adults. The book is about Willow Chance, a young girl of mixed ethnicity and staggering intelligence whose adoptive parents die in a car crash, leaving her with no relatives and few friends. The fact that their deaths isn’t the main focus of the story is what makes this book so special. Instead, the car crash serves as a catalyst for the relationships she develops over the course of the book. While I don’t want to give too much away, the things that I loved about this are:
Strong female characters. Sloan gives us both children and adults who make decisions and take responsibility for their actions. They are kind, strong, and determined. Some are leaders, others are introverts, all of them are fully developed individuals.
Characters who are not always up to the tasks that face them. This is something that is often left out of books for middle readers, and in my humble opinion it is an important lesson. You will not always be able to do what you want or need to do. Sometimes, you need help, and it doesn’t make you worthless or mean that you failed.
Friendships between adults and children. In Counting by 7s, there are several adult/child friendships as well as great kid/kid friendships. What is more, they aren’t shown as only benefiting the child (i.e. the wise mentor who befriends a needy child). In at least one instance, it is clear that the adult gets more meaningful, positive change from the friendship than the child does – by which I don’t mean to say AT ALL that the kid gains nothing. The relationships are mutually beneficial.
Most of the main characters are people of color, and it isn’t treated as being any big deal. There should be more books out there where the main characters are a diverse group, because that is a more accurate reflection of the society we live in.
Unusual family arrangements. Because again, we live in a world where “family” means more than a dad, a mom, and 2.5 children.
There is no teen/pre-teen romance. I like the absence, because I am getting sick of every book for kids having some sort of love interest. Why does a book aimed at ten-year-olds need to have budding romance/angst? WHY?! While that is an important part of a kid’s life, it is not the only part of their lives, and it’s great to see a book that celebrates the importance of platonic relationships. Plus, nothing to turn off kids that still think kissing is icky.
- The solutions to problems aren’t simple. The characters have to work hard to find answers for the challenges that face them, and what they get back is not always perfect. Some things don’t get fixed by the end of the novel. Some things do. In general, the things that do work out are deserved – by which I mean that the characters have put a lot of effort into figuring out a solution and executing it successfully. Change for the better in this book is earned, it doesn’t just fall into the laps of hopeful characters.
I loved the writing. It’s just beautiful, with the right amount of symbolism – enough for a kid to catch, not so much to leave an adult feeling like they are being hit over the head with the metaphor-bat.
Basically, I liked everything about it. Which is why I read the whole thing in three hours while at work – sometimes you just get into a world and can’t leave until you reach the door at the end. I highly recommend this book, especially if you know kids of either gender who want to read something without magic, where people solve problems the hard way, and win answers that they deserve.
You can buy Counting by Sevens and After Iris online from Annie Bloom’s Books, an independent bookstore that has been serving Portland readers for the last 35 years (and paying Kate’s bills for the last two).
-Kate loves kids’ books to an extent that most adults would find embarrassing. Fortunately, she is a bookseller, which makes it socially acceptable.