Counting by 7s. 2013. Holly Goldberg Sloan. New York: Penguin (Dial Books for Young Readers).
Length: 380 pp. (61 short chapters)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 5 and up
Awards: YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2012
We know that challenged students can sometimes feel excluded or isolated. But—what about the gifted? In this highly original story reminiscent of Mockingbird (by Kathryn Erskine) and Wonder (by R. J. Palacio), we meet Willow Chance, a bona fide genius who intrigues, bewilders, or annoys almost everyone who meets her. Willow is obsessed with plants and gardening, human medical conditions (most of which she is extraordinarily adept at diagnosing), and of course, the number 7, which she uses to organize the world around her.
Willow is the adopted child of people who clearly L-O-V-E her (p. 9), she’s an only child, and she’s just beginning middle school, for which she hopes (and believes) she is prepared. After all, she has her wheeled luggage (designed for the business traveler), a gardening outfit (to reflect her personality), and abundant knowledge of all subjects in which she is enrolled (with the notable exception of P.E., for which she has no love, period). Her introduction to middle school does not go smoothly, however. Everything about the environment is disturbing to Willow: it’s loud, hostile, and filled with people who seem more threatening or indifferent than friendly. Thanks to her unusual style of dress, one even mistakes her for a custodian.
She does leave her mark, though: Willow breezes through a state exam in under 18 minutes and achieves an unprecedented perfect score. To her surprise and dismay, she is accused of cheating, and immediately sent to counseling for rehabilitation. She has definitely come to the wrong place. Counselor Dell Duke has problems of his own. Middle school students mystify and intimidate him. Why can’t they just solve their own problems and leave him alone? He’s particularly eager to rid himself of the disturbingly precocious Willow, who certainly does not fit nicely into any of the Dell Duke Counseling System categories: The Strange, Misfits, Oddballs, Lone Wolves, or Weirdos.
Just when it seems things could not get worse, Willow’s parents are killed in a car crash, leaving her without friends or resources. She is about to become a ward of the state, which means no more freedom—and no more gardening (her passion and the thing that keeps her mentally grounded). Then, in a startling turnaround, a girl Willow has barely met, Nguyen Thi Mai, makes an impulsive decision that will change everything. Overnight, Willow becomes the newest member of a Vietnamese family hovering on the edge of poverty. With dazzling adaptability, she learns the Vietnamese language and blends into the culture as if she’s always been a part of it. But—will her efforts be enough? She and her rescue family will have to make a remarkably good impression on the Family Services people or Willow will be plucked from her new home like a weed from a garden. Presenting themselves as a typical middle class family might seem a challenge for people residing in a garage—but Family Services has not met Pattie Nguyen, Mai’s force-of-nature mother. In an episode both touching and insanely comedic, Pattie turns everyone’s world upside down to protect what she loves.
By turns deeply moving and profoundly humorous, Sloan’s book is a story of loss and survival, friendship, courage, and the ability of the human spirit to turn rejection right on its head. Even as Willow pulls out all stops to make a new life for herself, she simultaneously and dramatically transforms the lives of virtually everyone around her. In this eloquent, highly engaging protest against labels and stereotypical thinking, we learn that there is more to everyone than we first imagine.
In the Classroom
1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. While it’s an excellent read-aloud, funny in parts, moving or sad in others, you will notice that some meaning is conveyed or enhanced through Sloan’s extraordinarily adept use of conventions (more on this later). For this reason, you may choose to have students read the book on their own, with your guidance, so they can experience it visually. Chapters are short, making this an excellent choice for challenged readers who like to take longer books in small bites. Counting by 7s also makes an outstanding selection for a small-group book club or discussion group.
2. Background. What is the significance of the book’s title? Before reading, ask students to make a guess. Then discuss this again as you get deeper into the book. Why are 7s so important to Willow? Why are lucky or significant numbers important to many people? Do your students have special numbers, words, or rituals that influence their lives—or know someone who does? Can something seemingly so small (a number) actually help us cope or make sense of things? How?
3. Character. The central character in this book, Willow Chance, is a 12-year-old with exceptional mental acuity. As readers, we are told that she is “highly gifted” (p. 18). But even if we were not told, would we still see Willow as highly intelligent? Why? What are some clues that reveal her intelligence? How (other than formal tests) do we gauge human intelligence?
4. Argument. Notice that Willow objects to her “highly gifted” label. “It’s possible that all labels are curses,” she says (p. 18). Do you agree with her assessment? Are we all, as she says, “imperfect genetic stews”? What sorts of labels are used in our society? What about at your school? Can labels victimize people, even if they are ostensibly “good” labels, such as “gifted”? Argument writing: Using your own experience or that of people you know, craft an argument supporting or rejecting the notion of labeling people, even when using supposedly positive terms such as “gifted.”
5. Central Topic/Theme. What is the central message of Counting by 7s? Is there more than one? Does the writer reveal this message early on—or does it evolve slowly throughout the book? (Just a few possible themes: Labeling people is wrong, labels are misleading, our usual concept of “family” is limiting, everyone is gifted (and challenged) in some way, following your heart can be a good thing . . . ) Do you think writers have a message in mind when they set out to write a story like this one—or does the message evolve as an integral part of the story itself?
6. Organization. Like most narratives, Counting by 7s is written mostly chronologically. If you plotted this book along a timeline, what main events would stand out? Not everything falls neatly in place on that timeline, though. Return to the end of Chapter 1 (p 8). What is happening on this page? Now notice how Chapter 2 (p. 9) opens—and notice the chapter title. How is the author playing with time? Why didn’t she simply flip the chapters and write about Willow’s past history first instead of going back to it after Willow finds out about the accident? Other organizational features to notice: Chapters in this book are mostly short—some only two or three pages long. Organizationally, what freedoms do short chapters give a writer? (Example: The writer can shift focus often—from setting to setting, or character to character.) As a reader, do you like short chapters? Why? Note too that many chapters open with a quotation or axiom. How can a quotation or axiom “set the stage” for the writing that follows? Have any of your students tried this strategy?
7. Voice. Notice the shifts in voice. Many chapters, including 1 through 4, are written in Willow’s own first-person voice. Others, such as Chapter 5, are written in a third-person narrator voice—a voice different from Willow’s. Why would the writer make this choice? What does the first-person voice allow the author to reveal that the third-person does not? Or vice versa? Scanning several (or more) first-person narrative chapters, see if you can identify three or more quotations that reveal Willow’s character or personality. What sort of person is she? Is Willow’s voice typical of what you would expect from someone twelve years old? If not, how is it different? Expository writing: Draft a one- or two-page character sketch of Willow, using some of the quotations you identified as a group or class to support your assertions about her. Narrative writing: Write a two-chapter original narrative, with one chapter written in third-person, one in first-person. What is it like to write this way?
8. Description. Do we know much about what Willow looks like? Is this important? Why might an author deliberately avoid providing too much detail about a main character’s appearance—especially when this is often one of the first things an author tells us? Was this an oversight on the author’s part—or a strategy? Why do you think so?
9. Character development. Overall, are the characters in this book well developed? To put it another way, do they seem like real people? The Common Core Standards for narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through changes those characters undergo. How does Willow change in this book? What are the most difficult choices she faces? Expository writing: Choose a character other than Willow (Possibilities: Mai, Quang-ha, Pattie, Jairo, Dell Duke). Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze this character. What motivates him or her? How does the person change in the course of the story? What words would you use to describe this person? Does he or she face any difficult choices—and if so, how well are those choices handled? Hint: In choosing a character to write about, you might ask yourself, Is there a character I particularly admire? Or one that surprises me?
10. Detail. Reread the opening to Chapter 20, p. 123ff. What details in these few paragraphs help us to know what Willow’s new home with her Vietnamese family is like? Which details stick in your mind after you’ve finished reading? Why? The Common Core Standards for narrative (along with those for expository/informational writing and argument) emphasize the importance of well-chosen details. Does the writing in this chapter fulfill those requirements? How can you distinguish a really good detail from something more ho-hum? In addition, the CCSS for narrative asks writers to create a vivid setting in which their story unfolds. And settings, of course, are a composite of sensory details—what we see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. Why is setting so important? How does the setting in this chapter influence how Willow feels at this point in her life? Have you ever been affected emotionally by your surroundings, in either a good or bad way? Writing suggestion: In one or two paragraphs, create a setting in which the sensory details set a particular mood or tone for a story that might follow. Hint: Go beyond the visual. Think about including sounds or smells, for example.
11. Conventions. Notice where and how paragraphs begin and end in this book. Does author Holly Goldberg Sloan follow the usual conventional rules for paragraphing? What is different here? Talk about reasons this author might have had for breaking this conventional rule, and the impact it has on readers. In what other ways does the author manipulate conventions to influence meaning or voice? See how many instances your students can cite. (Hint: See pages 28, 37, 46, 53, 109 for just a few examples, featuring capitals, variations in font size, italics, and other features.) Further discussion: When is it OK to experiment with conventional rules? When is this not a good idea?
12. Expository writing. Dell Duke likes to categorize the people in his life. Compare his list from early in the story (p. 46) to the one he creates later (p. 358). What has changed? Why does he have more categories now? Are people within your school, or within our broader culture, also grouped into categories? What, for example? Why do we do this? How does it influence our thinking? Expository writing: Review Willow’s commentary on Dell’s lists (pp. 358-359). In one to two pages, explain why you agree or disagree with her assessment. Using quotations from the book, show why Willow—or any of the characters—fits into more than one category. Is that true of most people? All people? Would it be helpful to add to this list (e.g., philosopher, ecologist, teacher, dreamer)? Note: Compare Dell’s lists with the one Willow creates at the very end of the book (p. 377). How is Willow’s list different?
13. Writing an Argument: philosophical questions. Like all good books, Counting by 7s raises some important philosophical questions. Following are a few that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any of the following or pose a question of your own to form the basis of a written argument:
• Early on, some might say Dell Duke lacks the character traits needed to make a good school counselor. Do you agree? Should he be in this position?
• When Willow achieves a perfect score on a state test, she is accused of cheating. Is this a logical conclusion—or a wildly unfair assumption? (In answering, think of your own response if one of your friends achieved such a score in such record time—or imagine what you might do if you were in the position of the principal.)
• Many people do not seem to understand Willow. But is the reverse true? Or does Willow have exceptional insight into human nature? If you think she does, what evidence can you cite?
• Who is the most morally upstanding character in this book? Use quotations from the book to defend your response.
• Our society has many ways of categorizing people, from geography to race, height, weight, age, IQ, education, physical ability, and almost everything we can think of. Is categorizing people a potentially dangerous thing to do? Why? In defending your response, think of the consequences—both within this book and in circumstances extending beyond the book.
• We often use words like “normal” or “average” to describe people who do not deviate from expectations. But are these categories really an illusion? Is there such a thing as normal?
• If author Holly Goldberg Sloan were asked to define the concept of “family,” what do you think she would say? How does her concept of family compare to your own?
14. Comparison/Contrast: Have any of your students read the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio (see our March 4, 2013 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparison of the two lead characters, Auggie and Willow. What do they have in common? In what ways, if any, are they different? Students should support their assertions with quotations from both books. Narrative writing: Imagine that Auggie and Willow were to meet. Would they like or admire each other? Construct a story about that meeting by creating dialogue between the two.
15. Endings matter. The Common Core Standards call for narrative endings that follow naturally or logically from the story, and bring things to resolution. Focusing on Chapters 59, 60, and 61, discuss the ending of Counting by 7s. On a scale of 1 through 10, with 1 being totally predictable and 10 being a complete surprise, where would your students rank this ending? Satisfying endings, it’s said, wrap up loose ends and answer questions that have been building in the reader’s mind. Given those criteria, would you call this a satisfying ending? Would your students change anything about it, and if so, what? Many professional writers will tell you that the sign of a good narrative ending is that it suggests another story to come. Is that true of Sloan’s ending to this book? If so, predict what will happen in Willow’s life in the next year—or the next ten years. Will she continue to live with Pattie’s family? What career might she choose?
Sidebar: For a review of Wonder and accompanying classroom ideas, see our March 4, 2013 post. For similar information relating to Mockingbird, see our January 8, 2011 post. Remember that you can search our archives by book title, author, or subject matter at any time. You might be surprised how many of your favorites pop up!
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Adhering to the Common Core, inspiring students to be lifelong writers, and sharing the best of current literature: It can feel like a tall order! If you teach students in grades 3 through 5, we’ve got a book that can help. Check out our next post for a review of author/teacher Megan S. Sloan’s inspiring new book, 10 Essential Writing Lessons. A veteran teacher with countless suggestions for guiding students to writing success, Megan has taken modeling to new heights and can show you how to do it, too. We think this is a book you’ll want to add to your professional library.
Remember, for writing and revision lessons directly aligned with the CCSS, please see The Write Traits Classroom Kits by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These kits are grade level specific for grades 1 through 8. Be sure to request the NEW edition to ensure connection to the CCSS. For more information, see
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