Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.
- ISBN: 9780803738553
- Author: Sloan, Holly Goldberg
- Published: 2012, Dial Books for Young Readers
- Themes: Death of parents, Difficult decisions, Family, foster parents, loss, Orphans, School
- Descriptors: Intermediate (ages 9-14), Realistic Fiction, United States
- No. of pages: 384
4 thoughts on “Counting by 7s”
Part IV: Text Sets that Can Encompass this Novel
As we conclude our thinking around Counting by 7’s, we wish to consider text set topics that might be useful in understanding this book or extending its potential connections for readers. While we realize that one novel such as this most likely will not be used in the multiple ways we have considered this month, we do appreciate that it offers us the opportunity to think about intertextual possibilities for a book as we stretch our thinking around contemporary topics as perceived in our initial responses to Counting by 7’s. Our intent is to each focus briefly on a potential text set that we relate to the novel, but in identifying such, we found that some issues of WOW Review focused on themes within which this book would fit—thus offering titles that might fit within text sets around Counting by 7’s. Young People Taking Action for Social Change, (Vol. III, Issue 4), is one of these themes as Willow is continuously using her genius abilities to support and attend to the needs of others; Forced Journeys, (Vol. IV, Issue 2) is another focus that could include our novel under discussion as Willow is forced from the family she loves and on a search for the security and love she needs to thrive; Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities (Vol. V, Issue 4) might also be a text set that includes Counting by 7’s as Willow, though not disabled, must deal with an opposite special abilities situation and her story might prove an excellent anomaly within a set on young people dealing with disabilities. A quick review of these issues might reveal connections that would be significant for readers depending on how our novel is being used.
In continuing the focus on identity, a text set I have used is one on “Changing Cultures, Changing Identities.” As Willow is forced to a different familial lifestyle due to her parents’ death, she must adapt to a diverse family context, build new relationships, and she must situate her genius abilities and personality within a group of people whose needs are much different from the family she previously participated in. While we know from socio-cultural theory that she will not leave behind her identity, in light of the fact we are always adapting and adopting other ways of being, her identity will change in light of the new culture/s she encounters. As the story ends, we realize that the influence of the Vietnamese and Hispanic cultures will have continued ethnic influences on her life along with other cultural aspects.
My Family for the War (Anne C. Voorhoeve, Translated from German by Tammi Reichel, 2012), shared last week, is an obvious choice for such a text set. Other books include Sweetgrass Basket (Marlene Carvell, 2007) that tells the story of two Mohawk sisters sent to a BIA school in an era where those in charge of the school were tasked with removing their Native American culture. American Born Chinese (Gene Yang, 2006) is a graphic novel focusing on the problems of being a cultural outsider in the US. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie, 2007) creates an awareness of the effects of change on a contemporary young Native American who leaves the reservation to go to the city. Between Sisters (2010) shares the story of an African girl in Ghana who must navigate the differences of rural and city life. Keeping Corner (Kashmira Sheth, 2007) reveals the changing culture for women in India at the beginning of Ghandi’s influence. Inside Out and Back Again (Thanhha Lai, 2011) relates the story of a young immigrant from Viet Nam who works diligently to become part of the culture of which she is now part. The Day of the Pelican (Katherine Patterson, 2009) is the story of a Muslim family who comes to the US to escape the threats of war and politics in their native Kosovo, but find themselves soon in the mentality of a post- 9 / 11 United States. Of course, many other books can comprise this text set to include picture books that provide a focused glimpse of some aspect of identity change. While a picture book may not show the evolving change in identity as does a novel, it can invite discussion around the possibilities of each situation, such as Brothers in Hope (Mary Williams, 2005), The Arrival (Shaun Tan, 2007), and The Wall (Peter Sis, 2007) Shin-chi’s Canoe (Nicola I. Campbell, 2008), and Half Spoon of Rice (Icy Smith 2010).
I agree with Janelle that learning is all about making connections. As mentioned earlier, using the novel Counting By 7’s as a focus study and then creating literature discussion groups around other novels or creating text sets of picture books and other related text, both written and visual, help students make these connections. It creates a broad foundation for critical thinking and discussion and, believe it or not, their “reading comprehension” also will grow by leaps and bounds.
Janelle mentioned the book My Family For the War (Voorhoeve, 2012). There are many picture books suitable for upper grades that could be put together to go with this book. One comes to mind – The Orphans of Normandy (Amis, 2000). Certainly a text set about the homeless in current times would not be out of place in this theme. There are several new books that deal with the topic of homelessness – A Shelter in our Car (Gunning, 2012) is the first that comes to mind. It would be interesting to add a study of the current social services system and perhaps find a way to help out. Your students may have friends who are in foster care or who live in group homes and have never really understood what this “social service” is all about.
Janelle also mentioned the idea of social action in in Counting By 7’s given that Willow supported the needs of those around her. One of the ways Willow did this was through her interest in gardening. She created a central garden within her apartment complex for the purpose of creating something beautiful for the residents. I immediately thought of an older picture book A Handful of Seeds by Monica Hughes. In this book, Concepcion moves to the barrio and meets children who are forced to steal food when they are hungry. Concepcion takes some of the seeds her grandmother has saved, and the children create a neighborhood garden. There are many books available connected to community gardens and gardening. I thought it was interesting that the author of Counting By 7’s, Holly Goldberg Sloan, enjoys gardening. These are her words: “I love plants. Gardening. The power of watching the cycle of life play out in the smallest of flower pots. I spent a lot of time growing sun flowers when I was young.” It would no doubt be a worthy endeavor to grow something in the classroom with students who become interested, or with someone you love and awaken that possibility in them.
Since I come from a back ground of teaching American history, I once put together a text set on the orphan trains and I think I would use it with Counting By 7’s. The orphan trains took children from overcrowded orphan homes on the east coast and “gave” them to folks living in the west. These children were often sons and daughters of people who had immigrated to America. Although many children found good homes, others were considered to be servants, caretakers for younger children, and field hands. Clearly, the number of changes these children experienced at such an early age would have affected the development of their identities. The wonderful thing about the “orphan train” books is that along with the fictional accounts, there are several non-fiction books published lately with stories and pictures of the children who rode the orphan trains and what eventually happened to them.
First the fictional accounts – there is the novel Rodzina by Karen Cushman (2003) who follows a girl of Polish origin who ends up in Nebraska, and the picturebook Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting about a little girl who is sure her birth mother will be at one of the stops. There is a new book out – The Orphan Train: A Novel (Kline, 2013) that brings together a teenager currently in foster care and an older woman who was sent west on an orphan train. Non-fiction choices include Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story by Andrea Warren who also wrote We Rode the Orphan Trains.
Once one starts thinking along the lines of making connections with novels and text sets, it is hard to know where to stop! It would not be hard for teachers or students to put together eight or more text sets on the “big ideas” in Counting By 7’s. Along the way you no doubt will find the children around you more willing to share and discuss together the stories of the hard times along their paths and how they have come to see that they can make it and find happiness just as Willow did.
Part III: Intertextual Connections to Other Novels
This week’s responses will focus on pairing this novel with other books that might support and extend its central themes. The notion of intertextuality will continue next week as we share text sets that support or could include Counting by 7’s are shared.
When I was busy teaching elementary school, I loved to listen to my students discuss a novel like Counting By 7’s, and I would create with them a list of questions or big ideas that were generated from these discussions. We would then form groups to read and discuss other novels that related somehow to these big ideas or themes. In addition, we would put together sets of related texts that could expand the students’ knowledge base or broaden their perspectives. For example, a set of materials about Viet Nam might help them better imagine the life Willow lived after her parents died.
Counting by 7’s is rich with big ideas. Janelle and I spent some time thinking about big ideas so we could share with you a few other books you might like to use alongside this book. One theme stood out above the rest – and this is it: When your family structure changes, your identity is altered. I was adopted and understand clearly that a child whose family changes usually adapts to that change by forming a slightly different – or maybe a wildly different – world view than before. Willow began life with one family – then she was adopted by the white parents we meet in the book, and then she ended up with the family she created from her circle of friends. The way she thought and felt about herself changed along with her family structure.
Since Counting by 7’s is a “heavy” book in places, I would recommend the award winning series by Richard Peck: A Long Way From Chicago (1998), A Year Down Yonder (2002), and A Season of Gifts (2009). A gruff old woman who lives in the country changes the lives and character of her grandchildren who visit from the city – and the books are funny.
Patricia Reilly Giff also writes wonderful books that relate to identity development in children. In her book Eleven (2009), Sam has to solve the mystery of his past and he fears that the family he is with is not his family at all. That idea shakes him to the core. Her book Pictures of Hollis Woods (2004), takes the artistic Hollis from foster home to foster home until she finds one that keeps her, as the last line in the book says, “So there are five of us now: a mother, a father, two sisters, and a brother. A family.”
I know that even now, my friends will often speak of their families, and how living with them or getting away from them or altering them may have been crucial in who they have become. It was for me. How great for kids to begin thinking about these big ideas.
As we began thinking about the themes that ran through this novel—the big ideas–my thoughts continuously focused around notions of identity and, to a degree, the sense of agency that Willow has about who she is. This is largely due to Willow herself as, once her parents died in the automobile accident, she began noting what the old Willow would do or think and what the newly evolving Willow might say or do.
When we meet Willow, she has just lost the parents who adopted her years before. Through her voice, we learn of the realities of the grieving process, as mentioned in a previous blog, through her own voice. When left without the family whose nurturing stance helped Willow to naturally develop her “genius” abilities and extreme interests in plants, medical conditions, and the number 7, Willow finds herself surrounded by a diversity of people whom she doesn’t even know too well. Dealing with death and loss, she at first isolates herself mentally but eventually allows others to be part of the new identity that is evolving.
In pairing this book with others, several came to mind: A Year Down Yonder (Peck, 2002), Locomotion (Woodson, 2003), Wild Things (Carmichael, 2009), and The Book Thief (Zusack, 2007). But most prominent in my mind is a book I recently read, one that was recently reviewed in WOW Review—My Family for the War (Voorhoeve, 2012) This novel is a translated book about the kindertransport of WWII and focuses on one young girl, Franziska, later named Frances by her adoptive family, whose identity was forever changed when she was sent to live with a family in England. Although heart-broken and determined to help her family escape Berlin as well, Frances eventually finds herself slowly becoming attached to the Shepard family of which she becomes a part. She soon senses that the relationship she develops with the British mother of her new family is closer than what she shared with her own mother. Both Frances and Willow suffer loss and find themselves forced into a new family that ultimately shapes their identities in different directions while they still maintain the strength of character that provides resiliency and ultimately agency in both personal and social contexts.
With both girls being young adolescents, several intertextual connections both compare and contrast their identity evolution. One connection deals with the identity issues around both Willow and Frances crossing cultural boundaries in their original identities. Although we are never quite sure about Willow’s heritage, she states she is a “person of color” and her parents were white. She also states, however, how much they loved her and rarely does her race enter into the story as problematic as she felt they “looked like a family.” Frances, while German, discovers her Jewish roots as a result of the Nazi search to rid Germany of anyone with Jewish blood despite the fact that F’s family were practicing Protestants. This in itself provides the momentum for this story as well as an interesting situation within the British family, also Jewish, where the mother was previously Catholic.
The intertextuality between these two books was quite striking as we understand the story on both counts as coming from the protagonists who are thoughtful, daring, and evidence a strong sense of identity in their initial contexts. As each face displacement from the family life in which they have built a sense of self and relationships to others, each displays a sense of agency as they actively take control of the situation. Willow is not willing to accept the intentions of social services and begins her relationship with them by handing them a written plan of what she needs and will /will not do. Frances, when the family who was supposed to take her in does not appear at the station where the train brings the kinder, waits for only a short while until on her own she leaves the temporary location where she was being kept and begins seeking a family—despite her limited communication via English.
Readers are given insight to the thinking of both young girls as they consider the new relationships they are building and as each allows new individuals to be part of their lives, lifestyle and “family.” The process is expectedly slow as Willow is “incapable of communication” due to her grief and Frances deals with language barriers. Each refers to her previous self and what they would have done before the life-changing event that forced them into different families as compared to what they find themselves doing now. This awareness reveals their strong sense of who they are, their role as a family member, and how this is changing. This sense of self plays into the ending of each book where Willow’s situation leaves her in the care of her new family but Frances has to face the decision at the war’s end as to whether or not to return to her mother or remain with the Shepards. Both stories end hopefully with the protagonists in the care of loving people.
Both girls throughout the story are shown as interacting in substantive ways with other characters—helping others to maintain their sense of dignity and to better their current social situation. This seems to be a factor that helps them assimilate into their new “families.” Willow’s intelligence especially serves the taxi driver, the teen-age brother, and his mother (who becomes Willow’s foster mother) while Frances’s efforts are focused on both her parents in Germany and her family in Britain. Each girl is able to put into perspective the issues that have displaced them and actively involve themselves in the lives of others—much because of the emotional connection that develops during each novel.
These connections between Willow and Frances offer only a hint of how these two girls in different historical eras facing different life challenges might be considered similar. The intertextual connections of strong but changing identities that still remain true to the integrity of each offer powerful lessons on taking agency for both one’s self and others—lessons found in both historical and contemporary contexts.
We look forward to any continued discussion around the books we have mentioned here or others that come to mind when pairing Counting by 7’s.
Part Two – Characters & Context
Although Willow’s response to the death of her parents is authentic and moving, the story over all is hopeful and uplifting, and really fun and funny in places. This is largely due to the complex group of people who are in Willow’s life. The characters are realistic, but have definite quirks about them, like Willow herself.
As Janelle explained, Willow is a “person of color” as she describes herself, adopted by white parents, and a genius who is interested in all things but especially plants and medicine. Willow is aware that she does not really “fit in”. She meets a surly teenage boy originally from Viet Nam when she is sent to the inept counselor and she becomes friends with his older sister who is in high school. Their Vietnamese mother operates a nail salon and befriends Willow when her parents die. The only other character of note is a cab driver that Willow gets to know as she rides around in a cab. The voices are heard through a third person narrative that is written alongside Willow’s first person narrative.
I do think that there was some stereo typing with regard to the characters and they were placed in highly unusual situations. I really liked the cab driver, Jairo Hernandez, even though his part in the story was not always quite believable. He drives for Mexicano Taxi Company and you have to sort of get past that. Willow notes things about him and encourages him to follow his dream and go to school. She also notes his mole and suggests he see a doctor and sure enough, it was cancer. So he regards this as a sign that she is his angel. When he heads back to community college, he just happens to be the one millionth customer in the bookstore and wins enough money to pay for college. This from a college bookstore.
Then there is the Vietnamese woman who runs a nail salon. I have actually been to a nail salon in which the family was Vietnamese. But I still had mixed feelings about this. Especially since in the end she has enough money to buy an apartment building. She starts dating the cab driver. She converses freely with Willow because being a genius, Willow has learned the language at lightning speed.
But still, the story flows along and pulls you in – and I liked it. I got to know everyone and I am happy that they found each other, and I am happy they found Willow who helped them become more than what they were. But I still found the counselor, despite his transformation, slightly creepy.
Each character in Counting by 7’s is quite unique, to say the least. Readers have the most information about the protagonist Willow, a genius. While we may not know too many individuals like her for a comparison, insights to her grief in coping with the loss of her parents seem especially real, as mentioned last week. Perhaps the most realistic of them all, for me, are the Vietnamese brother, Quang-ha, and sister, Mai. They seem to represent adolescents struggling with not only the identity issues of their age but their bi-cultural life issues and events. The brother already is dealing with a lifestyle that reflects a lower socio-economic status when Willow comes into their lives and takes up more space and resources, although she is able, for a while, to attend to her own monetary needs. When Pattie, the Vietnamese mother, decides they (to include the counselor, Dell Duke) will try to obtain custody of Willow, Quang-ha is drawn into the plan and ultimately finds himself in a much better living situation to include a large screen television as well as realizing the jumpstart that Willow can provide in helping him succeed in his school work. His attitudes and reactions seem so typical of what many teens go through who are torn between cultural worlds, and my heart goes out to him in what he is experiencing. While his sister is in the same living situation, she, being younger, seems much more accepting of her family’s situation—perhaps due to her having a social life at school and being the more responsible of the siblings.
The other characters, while seemingly realistic, are in situations that are almost too coincidental—such as the taxi driver winning college money and Pattie having enough money in savings to buy an apartment building while she and her children were living in poverty (although I do know of people who secretly saved money until the “right” time came to disclose their funds—often a response to fear of extreme poverty). The counselor, hopefully, is not representative of a typical person in his field; however, his character does present an identity study that could be intriguing if it were read by persons interested in such. However, for the adolescent readers of this book, I am a bit concerned that he is a negative role model of someone they need to believe they can trust.
I think Sandy’s last paragraph is a good one with which to conclude. Despite their quirkiness, the characters pull you in and they each become more than what they were when readers first meet them. And, while I began this month’s response last week noting that Counting by 7’s, while on many “mock” Newbery lists did not make the actual final cut, it is listed in the ALSC’s Notables list for this year (reflecting 2013 books).
February’s “My Take/Your Take” will begin with a focus on our initial response to Counting by 7’s. Despite not being among the key award winning titles announced at ALA last month, we definitely find much to consider about this book. Following our initial response this week, in the second week of February we will take a closer look at the unique characters that Holly Goldberg Sloan has created. In the latter half of February, our thinking will focus on intertextual connections that invite us to extend our thinking around the novel to universal themes.
Part 1: Summary
In over 350 pages through which a reader moves quickly, Holly Goldberg Sloan has written a story that invites you to imagine the possibilities of life after tragedy through the experience of a young genius who has lost both of her adoptive parents in a tragic accident. Obsessed with nature, medical conditions, the number 7, and the intricacies of everyday life, Willow Chance is far too brilliant to connect to most students in middle school and is eventually sent to a counselor when suspected of cheating after she scores a perfect score on the California standardized test. Her appointments with Mr. Dell Duke resulted in her personal connections with a Vietnamese-American brother and sister who, along with their mother, become the people upon whom Willow depends following her parents’ death. This is an unlikely group of characters but realistically presented as they learn to form a family despite the flaws of each. The publisher’s note on the back states: “In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.” The descriptions and word use is not profuse but discerningly created focusing on the characters and the journey they take in supporting each other and creating a life for Willow and themselves.
Janelle’s initial response:
I was immediately drawn into this story since Willow Chance narrates and shares her genius mind with interests and knowledge that is not normal for the average adult—much less a twelve year old girl. We are immediately privileged by entering into Willow’s thinking and viewing the world through her own lens. As the story progresses, how she deals with the tragedy of her parents’ accident is realistic and despite a few other story situations that may trouble readers, such as Dell’s poor counseling skills and Patti suddenly having money, the story remains to me one of hope that shares the possibility of change, the need for people to support one another, and the changing notion of identity—how one views herself and the factors that affect such. I also appreciated the many metaphorical statements this child genius made as they reflected a common sense view of the world that spoke to awareness and inquiry. Examples are “books = comfort” (p. 152) and “Life, I now realize, is just one big trek across a minefield and you never know which step is going to blow you up” (p. 165). For those who wish stories to have resolution, this one does despite the tragedy that initiates it; and while, at times, this resolution may seem a bit too convenient, Willow’s story reminds us that coincidence aligns with making the best decisions we can to keep life ever hopeful.
Sandy’s initial response:
In reading Janelle’s initial response to Counting by 7’s, I was taken by her observation that the way Willow deals with tragedy is realistic. When I was teaching intermediate students, there were many who met with loss – among others, a brother who was shot by a gang member, a mother who died of cancer, and the loss of grandparents. Counting by 7’s would have given my students the opportunity to connect to Willow’s pain, and to learn from the way Willow walked through her grief and went on to have a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
When she hears that both of her parents have died in a car accident, she refuses to return to her home. Their presence there would be overwhelming. I remember once walking into the apartment of someone who had died unexpectedly, and seeing the coffee cup in the sink that had been placed there that morning. Surely he would walk out of the next room any minute. Willow felt this, and though she took the time to find someone to care for it, she could not go back to her garden either. She says, “I cannot think. I cannot concentrate. I cannot breathe. No, no, no, no, no.” For some, perhaps familiar places bring comfort. But to others, they only echo of what once was, and is no more.
Willow receives temporary housing with a friend who lives in a garage. She imagines the garage burning down and thinks “ the searing pain of losing my mom and dad would go up in smoke with me. I would be released then. I would be set free.” Often grief is suffocating and there is no immediate relief. Only time can help us through. Willow says, “I hope that I am dreaming. I am not. Yesterday happened. The heavy weight of it presses down on me in a force much greater than gravity. It is crushing.”
Willow stops talking. She doesn’t move a muscle except to take “shallow, almost imperceptible breaths”. At one point the enormity of the situation causes her to faint. When she meets with sympathetic friends, she says, “I can’t look at them. I can’t look at anyone. I do not hear a single word they say.” She cannot go back to school. “I am taking a break from that,” she says. She becomes silent. She says, “I do my best to become invisible. No matter how hard they try, other people do not understand because I am incapable of communication. And that is why the deepest form of pain comes out as silence.”
Finally, after a few weeks, she sums it up this way: “I experienced the hollow feeling of complete loss which is emptiness. Meaning has been drained from my life. I force myself to think of anything but the one thing I am always thinking about. And that is so exhausting that I sleep more than I ever have. I am a shadow.”
Holly Goldberg Sloan experienced losses – her husband in a swimming accident and the death of a good friend from college. After Willow’s loss, Sloan begins to help Willow rebuild a life, as we all must do, and although it is a different life, she carries the essence of Willow into this life, and she brings about transformation in those around her. Because I believe in her grief, I can believe what happens after that.
The author also tells us that she had two married friends, Bob and Soni, who were killed in a car accident. “They were here,” she says, “and then they were gone. Just like that.” I think Willow and I would agree – the people we love can leave us, just like that.