I think I might be able to quit reading Cybils middle grade fiction nominees right now and declare Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan my top pick. It’s hard to imagine another novel outshining this one. It’s the story of Willow Chance, twelve year old genius, who is orphaned early on in the novel (for the second time, really, since her parents adopted her) and finds her new family in the most unlikely of places. She is sent to a district-wide counselor at school when her teacher thinks she has cheated on a standardized test (she aces it in about fifteen minutes). It turns out that her counselor, Dell Duke, is really a sham. He managed to get his job because everything else he dreamed of or tried didn’t quite work out, and after adding some “bogus counseling work experience to his résumé,” he was hired by the school system. The truth is, he has no clue what he’s doing, and his personal life is perhaps even more dysfunctional than his professional life–he’s a borderline hoarder who exists on frozen dinners, never cleans his apartment, and simply buys new underwear when he runs out of clean ones. It happens that he “counsels” a set of siblings–Mai and Quang-Ha Nguyen–just before Willow, and Willow latches on to the older Mai and finds a friend. Just as this fledgling friendship is taking off, Willow’s world comes crashing down, but Mai takes matters into her own capable hands and enlists her mother’s help. Pattie Nguyen owns a nail salon, and she and Mai are a force to be reckoned with. Pattie takes temporary custody of Willow, and what comes of this arrangement is the gradual betterment of all their lives, including Dell’s and even that of a taxi driver named Jairo.
One of the things that makes this book so wonderful is Willow’s voice–intelligent; strange, but tempered by self-awareness; articulate; grieving; hopeful; and innocent. I almost laughed out loud when she leaves this note for Jairo after she rides in his taxi:
You need to have a dermatologist perform a punch biopsy on the mole (nevus) on the back of your neck. If it is not too much of an invasion of your privacy, I would very much like to look at the pathology report. I will be taking a taxi next week at this same time. This is important, so please do not take this medical suggestion lightly.
Sloan has achieved quite a feat in this novel in that there isn’t a single character that seems underdeveloped, and in the end, I am cheering for each one of them. My only criticism of it is that with the rapid point-of-view shifts (from chapter to chapter sometimes), I found myself confused at time as to whose voice I was hearing, but it was easy enough to figure it out. I loved this story and won’t forget Willow and her seven important people any time soon. Highly Recommended. (Dial, 2013)