Monday, July 29, 2013

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

380 p. Dial Books for Young Readers/ Penguin Group (USA) Inc., August 29, 2013. 9780803738553. (Arc obtained at ALA Annual, courtesy of the publisher)

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old adoptee and a bit of an odd-ball. She's a genius and a tad obsessive, especially about gardening, nature, and medical conditions. She's also an astute observer. She knows she doesn't fit in. She knows that her parents desperately want her to, so she tolerates school and all the disappointments that it brings, to please them. When she aces the state test, she is accused by the school administrators of cheating and is sent to a counselor for evaluation. She protects her parents by handling it herself. They have no idea that she has weekly "counseling" sessions after school. It is during one of these sessions that tragedy strikes and Willow's world falls apart.

The structure of this story is unique, at least to me. It took me awhile to realize that it's told essentially in one sentence paragraphs, not quite blank verse, not quite standard prose. This enhances Willow's rather intense, emotionless voice and lends itself nicely to her meandering scientific observations and deadpan (or unintentional) humor. 

The POV shifts from Willow's first person account to an omniscient third person and slightly backwards in time before staying in the "after." The one-sentence  structure is maintained in the third person as well. Upon reflection, all of the folks surrounding Willow are fractured in some way, so this makes a certain sense. 

The descriptive language is astounding - were I highlighting my arc, nearly the entire book would be neon yellow. 

     "The anxious woman leaned on her desk, and her brow   
      knitted into a strange pattern of angled, intersecting lines.

     I felt certain that if I stared long enough, I would find a
     math theory in the woman's forehead.

    But the lines rearranged themselves before I could work
    out the dynamic,..." (p. 36)

The characters are unique, a bit out there and, for the most part, trying their best. Willow changes each and every one. There's Del, the inept school counselor to whom Willow is assigned when an inept school administrator assumes her perfect state test school is due to cheating. There's Mai and her brother Quang-ha, who has anger issues. Willow meets them because Quang-ha's session is just before Willow's. There's Pattie, Mai and Quang-ha's mother, who, with just a few whispered words from Mai, lies to the police and tells them that they are family friends, enabling her to save Willow from going immediately into foster care. 

There's a lot of Quirk here. There are also Plot Contrivances. I've a feeling folks are going to either love or hate this book. I fell in love on page one and decided to stay in love when the snark and the eye rolls occasionally threatened. I even loved the rather happy, slightly unrealistic ending. I let go and went with it because I became invested in Willow immediately despite the fact that I will never, ever again eat dipped ice cream. I stayed invested because Ms. Goldberg Sloan painted a portrait of grief that tore my heart out. I stayed with it for all the little pockets of lovely language and imagery. I stayed with it because I know quite a few Willows. They can be very, very difficult to be around and literature reminds me that there is a story in every Willow.

Please make room for Willow.

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