61 pages 2 hours read

Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Counting by 7s is Holly Goldberg Sloan's first middle-grade novel, published in 2013. A New York Times bestseller, this contemporary story draws upon themes relevant to Sloan's own life. The novel is set in present-day Bakersfield, California, which Sloan says is “emblematic of the characters,” in the sense that it is “often overlooked.”

Plot Summary

The novel's protagonist is 12-year-old Willow Chance, a “highly gifted” girl fascinated by the number seven, plants, and medicine. She knows she is different and has only ever felt truly accepted by her adoptive parents, Jimmy and Roberta. Willow struggles through her first few weeks at Sequoia Middle School, during which time her teacher accuses her of cheating on a test she completed perfectly. As a result, she meets with the school's behavioral counselor, Dell Duke. Dell has never met a student like Willow, and her intelligence inspires him. 

One day, Willow arrives to a counseling session and two high-schoolers, Mai and Quang-ha Nguyen, a sister and brother duo, are waiting for Dell. Willow befriends the girl, Mai, and goes so far as to learn Vietnamese so that she can converse with her new friend in her native tongue. Wanting to spend more time with Mai before her sessions, Willow starts calling a taxi to bring her from school to Dell's office. She befriends the driver, Jairo Hernandez, and her insightful observations and comments lead him to reevaluate his life choices and finally go back to school. 

The novel begins on a beautiful afternoon, and Willow is enjoying ice cream with Mai, Quang-ha, and Dell. When they take her home, police officers are waiting there inform them that Willow's parents have died in a car accident. Willow has no relatives who can take her in after the accident, so Mai decides to lie to the police so that Willow can stay with the Nguyens. Sympathizing with Willow, Mai and Quang-ha's mother, Pattie, allows her to stay. The Nguyens live in a shabby garage behind Pattie's nail salon, and fearing they will not pass the home inspection from Child Services, Pattie puts down Dell's address at the Gardens of Glenwood as her own. When the time comes for the home inspection, everyone helps turn Dell's junk-filled bachelor apartment into a passable family home. 

It takes her a couple of months to settle into her new life and her new routine, but eventually Willow is ready to start gardening again, which marks a significant step in her emotional healing. Not long after she transforms the dusty courtyard into a beautiful garden, symbolizing her readiness to send down her own roots with her new family, Pattie receives a letter from Child Services informing her they have found a permanent place for Willow to live. Willow mentally prepares to start her life again, and is shocked to see the Nguyens, Dell, and Jairo at her hearing. Jairo and Pattie (who have secretly been seeing each other) file for custody of Willow, and Willow is able to return to the Gardens of Glenwood with her new family.

The chapters frequently shift between Willow's first-person account and a third-person omniscient narrator, which provides detailed insight into Willow's character and an objective account of others. Willow peppers her narration with medical and plant jargon, as well as Vietnamese phrases she uses with Mai and Pattie, demonstrating her knowledge and highlighting the things she cares about. She narrates the story in real-time (with the exception of a flashback), balancing Willow's slow process of grieving with her impending, unavoidable court date.

Counting by 7s explores themes of family, deception, and growth, using vivid plant imagery to mark the different stages of Willow's life surrounding the accident. The mood of the writing follows Willow as she navigates her grief: introspective, heartbreaking, humorous at times, but ultimately hopeful.

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