I remember the first book that broke my heart. Well, I don’t remember the title, but I can see the cover and I remember reading about the relationship between a boy and his horse. He connected to his horse in a way he had not connected with people. One stormy night, his horse bolted and broke through a fence. The horse ended up falling into a well (or a pit? Some kind of deep hole) and broke one of its legs. The boy used his father's shotgun to put his beloved horse down. Ugh. I remember how my breath caught in my throat and tears started running down my face. I was 11 and sitting in my parents' living room on their white leather couch. I made a mad dash to the bathroom and finished the book through my streaming tears.
I grew up loving books. I read every genre: fantasy, horror, biblical fiction, christian romance, romance, historical fiction, biographies, history, science, music; any and every book I could get my sticky hands on--I read. Now that I have children, one of my favorite things to do is to read to them. We’ve mostly read gentle fiction, so so so much fantasy, fairy tales, biographies and the like. Recently we all needed something different and I started looking at some Young Adult Fiction. Venturing out of where we’ve been for their entire lives was a bit scary but also exciting; as most events in parenting are! For our first YA read I picked up was a copy of “counting by 7’s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan and it was very fulfilling. It made us laugh and cry and brought us a lot of joy in being together. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it.
“Counting by 7’s” attracted me because it’s the story of a girl who is “different” than typical kids and I thought my kids would relate to that.
They did. I did. We all did. It was really wonderful to read about a person, a child, who thinks in a non typical way. Willow, the heroine, is “highly gifted.” In that giftedness she’s a bit obsessive and lives very much inside her own mind. She spends her days thinking about her plants (her back yard is described as a jungle that she's grown completely herself), medical conditions (in her mind she assesses and diagnoses everyone she meets) and counting by 7’s (as in 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42,…) to calm herself down when she’s upset about something, like a change in her routine or missing a social cue.
The sudden death of her adoptive parents completely disrupts her life and sends her outside of her very small comfort zone where she blossoms into someone that might have never existed without tragedy. For months Willow is paralyzed by grief. I love this; not because I’m sadistic and love to see children suffer, but because the author so magnificently portrays the deep grief of a child. So often children's emotions are dismissed as less than adults emotions; less valuable, less intense, less developed. Holly Goldberg Sloan describes in beautiful prose the grief of Willow Chance: a child, and a human:
“I go outside and sit on the steps,
I’m not waiting,
I’m just being.
Time exists only in my mind.
For someone grieving, moving forward is the challenge.
Because after extreme loss, you want to go back.
Maybe that's why I don't calculate anything now. I can only count in the negative space.
I’m on a different planet now.
I only speak when I absolutely have to.
Otherwise, I do my best to be invisible and stay out of the way.
No matter how hard they try, other people do not understand that I’m incapable of communication.
And that is why the deepest form of pain comes out as silence.”
Anyone who has experienced extreme loss in death or otherwise, will relate to this description; even children.
After her parents death she is taken in by a Vietnamese woman and her two children. The Nguyen family lives in utter poverty seemingly barely making ends meet, but they were still willingly take Willow into their home and into their lives. Together, with the school counselor and the Nguyen family, Willow somehow makes her own place in the world. People want to pull together for her. To help her. And they do. When Willow is a part of people's lives, their lives change for the better. While she changes their lives, they change hers. “Counting by 7’s” is so full of synergy it seems to pour out of the book and into the space around it.
Willow’s transformation in the pages of this book is beautiful and incredible. She starts the book introverted and almost self consumed. Reading the book I got to watch her develop friendships with the Nguyen children and their mother. She gained a connection to her lackey school counselor that helped them both to accept who they were. She finds a new home and builds a new garden for not only her own enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of others.
The ending, though, was terribly written. If you don't want to know the ending, stop reading here. In the end the Vietnamese mother reveals she’s secretly a millionaire and money solves most of the unresolved problems in the book. When I realized that is how the book was going to end I was horrified. It felt like every page of “counting by 7’s” had been carefully thought out, and beautifully written. It felt like the ending was written by someone other than the author. It's so predictable and such a perfect neatly wrapped up story. I’ve considered that it ended so neatly because its YA fiction and the target age is probably middle schoolers. But still. If they can handle the sudden death of both parents in a story it seems like they could handle a better ending!!
If you're wondering, my daughters loved the happily ever after ending.
Even with the ending written in a way I did not like, I would recommend this book to any non-neurotypical person who wants to find a connection to a character in a book, any child that has experienced loss, any adult that has experienced loss, any creative who loves beautiful writing, and pretty much anyone else.
Be prepared for that ending!!