Some people have lucky numbers; others have lucky stars. Holly Goldberg Sloan credits her career change, and her subsequent success as an author of children’s books, to something a little different: a lucky shrimp.
Alas, said shellfish wasn’t so felicitous for Sloan’s husband. But for her, it touched off a life-changing transition from screenwriter (numerous feature films, including Angels in the Outfield) to author (2011’s I’ll Be There, and now Counting by 7s).
In a phone call from her Santa Monica, California, home, Sloan told BookPage the story of how her first book came to be: “My friend asked us to go on a trip, and didn’t give a lot of specifics. It turned out we went to a vegetarian yoga resort, which was totally cool with me, but my husband isn’t a vegetarian and doesn’t do yoga. The first night, I asked if they had meat or protein of any kind. They were able to get a limited amount of shrimp, so he ordered that.”
Then, gastrointestinal disaster struck—and between her husband being out of commission for a week and the resort’s no-Internet-or-TV policy, Sloan found she had some time to kill. “It was really serendipitous,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone on a crazy vacation in Mexico, where I was on my own and my husband was in a stone hut, sick . . . I wouldn’t have had so much time on my hands, and started writing a book.”
Fortunately, Sloan’s husband was not harmed during the writing of her brilliant second book, Counting by 7s, which draws readers into the singular world of eccentric 12-year-old Willow Chance.
Sloan has created a story where the line between youth and adulthood moves back and forth.
Willow applies her prodigious intelligence to her hobbies: a thriving and varied backyard garden, and the diagnosis of medical conditions. “I am particularly drawn to skin disorders,” Willow explains with a seriousness that is at once amusing and endearing, “which I photograph only if the subject (and one of my parents) isn’t looking.” She also counts by sevens to establish a soothing sense of order. “It’s an escape technique,” Willow says.
But when her parents, with whom she has a loving relationship, are killed in a car accident, Willow’s pain cannot be organized or soothed away. Even worse, the policemen who gave her the terrible news are asking about next of kin—and she has none, save a grandmother with dementia.
Then a lie spoken out of compassion—a new friend, Mai, tells the police her family has known Willow’s for a long time, and can thus take her in—offers a temporary reprieve. It also segues into a memorable story of kindness among friends and strangers, the dangers and rewards of taking risks, and ultimately an exploration of the meaning of family.
Sloan’s gift for storytelling is evident: Her characters are sometimes kooky, but not too; trust is earned and happiness tentatively blooms, but not so quickly as to seem unlikely; and Willow’s sorrow isn’t smoothed over, but rather recognized as an addition to her new, unpredictable existence.
If anything might seem improbable to readers, Sloan says, it’s probably Willow’s preternatural poise and smarts. “I know that some people will read the book and think it’s not possible, that Willow seems to have superhuman powers,” she says. “But they just haven’t been around a kid like that. If you’ve been around highly gifted kids, some of them do seem to have superpowers, and corresponding confidence. Those kids spend more time with adults . . . but because they’re more comfortable with adults, they become outcasts in their own peer group.”
Sloan says she’s “always been interested in those kinds of kids,” not least because she was sometimes one of them, which she drew on when creating this story. For example, during one year in elementary school, she left her classroom twice weekly to visit a nearby college campus, where “the psychology department was conducting an experiment rewarding gifted children.” Sloan says, “It was so strange, and it made me feel like an outsider.” In Counting by 7s, Willow leaves class for regular visits with her school’s counselor, Dell Duke—something that further sets her apart from her peers, too.
In addition, Sloan’s father’s job as a consultant to the Peace Corps meant her family had a new address every few years, so she was the new kid in class many times. “I had a peripatetic childhood that in many ways informs who I am today, and influences my writing because I very much identify with outsiders,” she says.
And, she adds, “You can approach that in two ways: Be Willow-esque and retreat to live in your own head, which is a great place to live on some levels, or throw yourself into the situation. Mai . . . throws herself into the world and makes as many connections as she can, while Willow does the opposite until she’s forced to do something else.”
But it’s not just Willow who must learn to behave differently; the adults in Counting by 7s have some growing and changing to do, too. For example, Dell Duke has long categorized the kids he counsels (as misfits, oddballs, geniuses, etc.), but Willow and her friends defy his descriptions. And Mai’s mother’s routines are upended, which makes her cranky—but also leaves her more open to the unexpected.
Sloan says that aspect of the book struck a chord with one of its first readers: “I gave it to a precocious 11-year-old, and she said her favorite character was [taxi driver] Juan, by far. She said she liked him because Willow made him change without even trying. And I know what she’s saying—she’s very attracted to the idea that she could be doing this in the adult world, too.”
It’s easy to imagine that readers—whether kids, adults, young[Mon Jul 28 16:37:08 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. -at-heart adults or precocious kids—will find themselves taken with, even inspired by, Counting by 7s. Sloan has created a story where the line between youth and adulthood moves back and forth, often more than once in a single day—and where kids and adults “have relationships that are real and go both directions,” she says. The book is a moving, often funny reminder that such relationships are worth cultivating, and that being open to new people and experiences—however strange or difficult they may seem—can lead to wonderful things.
After all, look what happened when Sloan and her husband went on that vaguely described vacation, and her husband ate that fateful, tainted crustacean! “I’m hoping that today my husband also thinks it was a lucky shrimp,” Sloan says. “But I don’t ask.”Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Willow Chance is an extremely precocious and analytical 12-year-old "genius," and she doesn't fit in with other kids (though she'd doubtlessly find a kindred spirit in Lauren Tarshis's Emma-Jean Lazarus). Despite Willow's social difficulties, she makes an impression on everyone around her--whether it's Dell Duke, a lonely and ineffectual school district counselor, or Jairo Hernandez, the taxi driver Willow hires to drive her to her meetings with Dell. After Willow's parents die in a car crash, her new friend Mai Nguyen persuades her mother to take Willow in; despite the Nguyens' poverty, their makeshift home and open arms help bring Willow back from the void. As in Sloan's I'll Be There, the narration shifts among multiple viewpoints, from Willow's cerebral first-person perspective to third-person chapters that demonstrate how her presence is transformational to those around her, young and old. But while elements of Willow's story are indeed extraordinary and even inspirational, Sloan's somewhat portentous storytelling gets in the way of letting readers reach their own conclusions about the ways people save each other. Ages 10-up. Agent: Amy Berkower, Writers House. (Aug.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC
Gr 5-8--Twelve-year-old Willow Chase lived with her adoptive parents in Bakersfield, California. There in the midst of the high desert, she grew a garden in her backyard, her sanctuary. She was excited about starting a new school, hoping this time she might fit in, might find a friend. Willow had been identified in preschool as highly gifted, most of the time causing confusion and feelings of ineptness in her teachers. Now at her new school she is accused of cheating because no one has ever finished the state proficiency test in just 17 minutes, let alone gotten a perfect score. Her reward is behavioral counseling with Dell Duke, an ineffectual counselor with organizational and social issues of his own. She does make a friend when Mai Nguyen brings her brother, Quang-ha, to his appointment, and their lives begin to intertwine when Willow's parents are killed in an auto accident. For the second time in her life she is an orphan, forced to find a "new normal." She is taken in temporarily by Mai's mother, who must stay ahead of Social Services. While Willow sees herself as just an observer, trying to figure out the social norms of regular family life, she is actually a catalyst for change, bringing together unsuspecting people and changing their lives forever. The narration cleverly shifts among characters as the story evolves. Willow's philosophical and intellectual observations contrast with Quang-ha's typical teenage boy obsessions and the struggles of a Vietnamese family fighting to live above the poverty level. Willow's story is one of renewal, and her journey of rebuilding the ties that unite people as a family will stay in readers' hearts long after the last page.--Cheryl Ashton, Amherst Public Library, OH[Page 148]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.