Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Counting By 7s

I’LL BE THERE by Holly Goldberg Sloan was always on my list of books to read because of the interesting plot summary and the appealing cover art but I never got around to it, so I had to change that this time around when her second book, COUNTING BY 7s, racked up even more starred reviews (four, I believe).  I find this a very strong book, not least of all because it contributes to a couple of our running discussions (more on that later).  Oh, and yes, it also stacks up quite nicely against the Newbery criteria.

I found the writing style extremely funny, insightful, and engaging, whether the story was being narrated from Willow’s first person viewpoint or from the various third person viewpoints–and the juxtaposition of the two creates narrative interest.  I liked every single character in this book; they all seemed real, and funny, and warm.  I did become less interested in the second half of the book, and I’m not sure why.  Did the pacing–my Achilles heel, it would seem–bog down for me?  Did I miss the focus on Willow herself rather than the focus on solving her problems?  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that this is easily one of the better middle grade novels I’ve read this year, and it deserves a place in this conversation.

We’ve been talking recently about books that are too old for the Newbery, and I’ll be curious to know if there are any concerns on that front in regard to this book.  While the main character is twelve, the other two young characters are in high school, and the remaining characters are adults.  Certainly, not as old as FAR FAR AWAY, but still worth talking about as long as we’re discussing the age question.

And you may remember back to our discussion of NAVIGATING EARLY that there are several high profile titles this year that include a character that appears to be on the autism spectrum.  Those others being THE THING ABOUT LUCK, AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK, THE REAL BOY, and this.  Each autistic characterization is distinctly different and taken together I think they provide a fairly well-rounded picture of what the spectrum includes.  THE REAL BOY and COUNTING BY 7s both have autistic main characters (whereas the others have secondary characters) so I think these two are probably the most ripe for a head-to-head comparison.  What do you think?  Which characterization felt more distinguished?



Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Kristine A says:

    Based on what I have read this year, this is my standout. It’s voice, characterization, and sentence level writing are all distinguished. I heart this book. The plot did turn out a little loose at the end, with what I consider it’s weakest component: the ending. I did feel the second half lacked for me, but wasn’t sure if that was because my ARC kindle edition skipped pages at a time.

    I was surprised that you characterized Willow as on the autism spectrum, because in my own reading she was more just a quirky prodigy. Maybe it was because she was so acutely observant of social cues and nonverbal language of those around her that I didn’t identify her as on the spectrum. I admit I’m not an expert on the spectrum, though.

    As a former foster parent I was pleased with the representation of ‘the system’, the good, bad, and ugly. I appreciated the symbolism in the parallel story of the plants – I prefer deeper meanings to be subtle, and less in your face (I’m looking at you ‘Navigating Early’ and ‘Okay for Now’).

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I think WIllow’s characterization as an autistic person is perhaps more ambiguous than some of those others that we mention, but the spectrum does allow for these genius types. Doesn’t Early have a touch of that? Temple Grandin?

      • Kristine A says:

        While there is definite overlap between savant and autism (I’m imagining a Venn diagram here) I would be careful to say characteristics of A+B=C (quirky prodigy = spectrum). Correlation is there, but clearly in a Venn diagram they wouldn’t completely overlap. Personally (on one reading) I still didn’t see autistic characteristics presented. Counting by sevens being the nearest, but growing up my brother blinked until his eyelids clicked three times on one side, then he said he felt compelled to blink until his other eye clicked three equal times. It was a quirk, but he wasn’t autistic or OCD.

      • Kristine A says:

        I meant to say overlap between prodigy and autism.

        ps since the definition of Savant is someone with a disability who typically has low IQ score but is a genius in one or more of these areas: art, musical abilities, calendar calculation, mathematics and spatial skills . . . I still don’t see it fitting.

        The literary character that I identify Willow with the most if Flavia de Luce, the young chemistry prodigy.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I think the book is written in such a way that if you need Willow to be autistic then she can be, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be. (I’m not sure that the kid brother in THE THING ABOUT LUCK is necessarily autistic either–I thought he might be OCD instead.) Or if I were skeptical I might argue that Willow’s medical diagnosis is just as vague and fuzzy as her racial heritage.

        Here’s a case study of a linguistic savant, by the way. Not sure if this guy’s autistic, but the point is that while savants usually fall into one of those five categories, they do not always.

  2. I was a big fan of “I’ll Be There” and look forward to reading this one.

  3. I loved this! However, during the first few chapters, I was not impressed. Willow came off as a forced kind of quirky and I was bummed this was going to be another dead parent book. But eventually the book did win me over. Mostly I liked Dell and how bad he was at life. I feel like Dell is a character rarely seen in children’s literature–an adult who’s not a villain, but severely flawed. When I was a kid, I would’ve really appreciated a look inside the head of an adult who had nothing figured out. Most adults in kid lit are clear good guys or bad guys or one-dimensional funny guys. Dell breaks the mold.

    I don’t think this is a Newbery contender in my book because certain plot elements came off as pat or unrealistic (even when they were sweet and rousing). For example, though I’ve been told this does happen in real life, I have a very hard time believing that a mother would live in near poverty with her children while hoarding enough cash to buy an apartment complex. (Pattie, unlike Dell, is too much the hero, and her pile of cash is a deus ex machina.)

    I’ll also mention that, like Kristine, I didn’t think of Willow as being on the autism spectrum, but I’m also not an expert.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Destinee, it didn’t bother me within the story, but, yeah, I agree that it’s a bit far-fetched that the mother would live in a garage and then turn around and buy an apartment complex. I do think that kind of stuff happens, but rarely, if ever, to that extreme. But I found the voice and the story so compelling that it just kind of turned off my critical faculties.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I had other problems with this book, but here is the deal-breaker for me: starting about half-way through, the book becomes more and more of a “feel-good” — everybody (meaning 5 people) touched by Willow has their lives transformed for the better and Willow herself becomes a “better” person than she was. The problem is that, ergo and as written, it’s hard not to implicitly conclude that IT WAS A GOOD THING WILLOW’S PARENTS DIED. That’s horrifying (and manipulative). What’s more, it should have been possible to have substantially the same plot, characters, etc. but write it so as not to come across that way. I mean, that’s the standard “dead parent” book, where a character comes to terms with grief, right? I think the problem is that this book also tries to be a “misunderstood outsider touches lives around her” book, and the combination, to me, is mishandled. So to me, fail on the “interpretation of the theme or concept” and “appropriateness of style” fronts. Both CENTER OF EVERYTHING and TRUE BLUE SCOUTS are able to have protagonists dealing with loss and have happy endings without creating this icky feeling that it was “for the best” that someone died.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I definitely felt like there was something off about the second half, and I think you may have articulated it, Leonard, but I’d need to reread the book with all of these comments in mind to get a better handle on how the book works.

  5. I appreciated this for many of the reasons others mention. In particular, I found Dell to be a wonderful character and Willow’s voice true and very well-done. There are some lovely scenes and vivid settings. However, I have one thing that bugs me: that Willow is some sort of undefined non-white ethnicity while her parents were white. Since there was no real unpacking of this I didn’t quite see why it was there other than so she could make a connection initially to Mai and then her family.

  6. I don’t necessarily want to disagree with any of the criticisms above, but as someone who nominated the book, I’ll just say that either I didn’t notice the things folks are objecting to, or they didn’t bother me.

    I think this book was distinguished — even the most distinguished — in characters, and to the degree that Willow’s voice can also be described as style, style as well. I loved all the characters, I loved what a quirky genius Willow was, I loved how self-aware she was (in some ways) and how aware she was of her surroundings. To this end, I actually thought the different perspectives were unnecessary and at times confusing. This, to me, is the strongest negative. Otherwise, I really loved this book. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few months, and this one sticks with me more than most. This may be because of its length, but perhaps staying power also indicates something about interpretation of theme?

  7. There were a bunch of things I liked very much about this book, and some things I didn’t, but what drove me nuts were the one-sentence paragraphs, particularly at the beginning. In the same way that font, design, punctuation, etc. affect my reading experience, those choppy paragraphs kept interrupting the flow of the prose. Any thoughts?

  8. Sheila Welch says:

    My reaction to this one is mixed. I, too, appreciate a lot of the scenes and much about the characters. But I have some of Leonard ‘s reservations. Willow becomes a sort of angel to those she meets, and my connection with her and her story began to slip as things became less real and more like a movie in which an old house is transformed into a charming home by hard work and goodwill. There is a whiff of the miraculous in this book that didn’t work for me.

    However, Willow’s being a “person of color” is fine, I think, and actually, in the adoption world, realistic.. More books should be out there with such characters, as race becomes less of an issue and simply more of a physical characteristic. Here was a chance to depict a dark skinned kid on the cover and instead we have fish. But that’s not the author’s fault.

    • I don’t have the book on hand, but I seem to recall Willow not really describing herself physically other than being “of color” and it was so vague I wasn’t sure why she even said it. I do agree that it would be great for this to just be a piece of the landscape, so to say, that there are certainly transracial adoptions, but in this case I didn’t see the point of it at all. If it was meant to be just there I’m afraid it didn’t work for me given the other very clearly defined non-white characters in the book.

      I don’t want to belabor this as it wasn’t a big deal as much as a quibble that may just be for me and no one else.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        The vaguely defined person of color reference didn’t bother me very much (and while I do like the present cover, it was a missed opportunity to have a dark-skinned protagonist–not that any of this is Newbery discussion fodder). I think Betsy also brought this issue up in her most recent Newbery/Caldecott post. She mentioned it in tandem with THE REAL BOY, but I thought the characters in that book were just as arbitrarily non-white. Didn’t bother me there either. I guess, I just don’t understand why one is problematic, and the other not. Hmmm.

  9. I really think the Book Smugglers voiced my problems with it better than I could:

    • Wow, I think I may actually be convinced. Especially by that last point about money/poverty and underlying problematic messages.

    I would like to speak to the issue of money and to what is written in The Book Smugglers post for which Kat provides a link (above).
    First of all, the Book Smugglers post states,
    “Then in the end it is revealed that Pattie is actually RICH, that she has been saving money all this time and has enough to buy an ENTIRE APARTMENT BUILDING.”
    This is not at all accurate. What is stated in the book is that,
    “She wants to buy the building.
    “The Gardens of Glenwood.
    “We all think that she’s kidding, but apparently she has already spoken to someone at the bank and she’s making a formal offer.”
    First of all, if you already have all the money in the bank to buy an ENTIRE APARTMENT BUILDING, you don’t need to speak to the bank other than to order a cashier’s check made out to the title company for the price of the building plus the closing costs. There is no way to accurately read the above quote from the book and logically conclude that Pattie actually has the money to buy an ENTIRE APARTMENT BUILDING. Second, we don’t actually know how much money Pattie has or what the chances are of Pattie being successful in her bid to buy the building. We are left not learning this. We have no idea what the apartment building might be worth (for which, if Pattie’s assessment of it is accurate, she will likely need twenty percent of that amount plus closing costs). All we know is that “she’s got, as Quang-ha says, ‘crazy mad money.'” For all we know, this characterization by a high school student who isn’t used to being around a lot of money could be what others would see as a decent but relatively modest amount in relation to purchasing real estate. Pattie has a chunk of money so we CAN conclude that the quartet won’t be stuck living on the street.
    The Book Smugglers post goes on to make conclusions based upon their own statement that “the revelation that Patti has tons of money all along…” This statement is presumably based upon the above quotes from the book and from a third quote that,
    “While Dell spent years piling up plastic plates, Pattie was stacking money.”
    Again, the text does not tell us that Pattie “has tons of money.” It does not quantify and so all we know is that Pattie has enough money to consider making an offer on a building whose value is not revealed..
    The Book Smuggler post also states that,
    “It is hinted that their living conditions is one of the main reasons why her son is having behaviour issues.”
    I see no evidence in the text of this “hint.”
    So all we really know is that Pattie has squirreled away a decent but unknown amount of money. We might speculate what she was eventually planning to do with the money.
    Given my own personal history and family history, I believe that squirreling away money for the purchase of real estate is the most responsible and logical course of action. And I might be a bit older than most of you, but I grew up with a mother who was old enough to have lived through, feel, understand, and vividly recall the Great Depression. This was the business woman who taught me to live relatively modestly, keep a cushion, and only go out on a limb when one is buying real estate and getting a great deal. Everything I read in the text, given my own personal history, makes sense, and so I don’t have any problem with what Pattie has done. Rather than being far-fetched, I found the ending to be down to earth, All-American, and something that totally made sense to me.
    As far as Dell, he is one of the most memorable adult characters I have encountered in all my years in the world of young people’s literature. He ranks right up there with P.J. Cooper.

    • I never thought that Pattie had enough money to buy the apartment building outright, just that she was able to make an offer on the apartment building. But making a down payment and having to make regular mortgage payments on an apartment building (with presumably at least 28 units since Dell lives in #28) would take a very large amount of money in my mind and in my world. I took that, along with the same quotes of “crazy mad money” and “Pattie was stacking money” to mean a change in circumstances so incomprehensible when juxtaposed with living in a garage that I had the very same bewilderment as to why they would be living in that garage? No bathroom, no real kitchen, no privacy…and then she plans on buying an apartment building? Along with Jairo’s lottery windfall, these elements taken together made me feel uncomfortably like money unrealistically saved the day in this book. And I do find Dell very interesting and even likable, but my problem is that we aren’t given much hope that he’ll change his horrific counseling ways at the end of the book. He has just added two more categories of people to his list and talked about how he needs to be more responsible, but he’s so flawed that we’re pretty sure it’ll take him a long time to get there, if he ever gets there. I want to emphasize that I really liked Willow, and I liked a lot of the writing style of this book, I just have some big reservations too.

      • My experience is that an Apartment 28 means the eighth apartment on the second floor. This is quite likely since it says on page 179,
        “Now he took the stairs to his second-floor unit, because the elevator, which was required by law, never worked.”
        This quote also gives the sense that this is certainly no luxury apartment complex. But I’ll grant there might well be sixteen (two times eight) units in the building.
        My real estate experience is that you have a positive cash flow from an apartment complex: as long as the units are kept occupied. This means that you have enough money coming in from rent to cover mortgage, taxes, insurance, and repairs, and cab possibly recoup a tiny bit of the down payment each month. The trick is to gain ownership and then get it to slowly pay itself off, with the mortgage principal steadily decreasing and your equity increasing.

    • Are there any municipalities that require elevators for apartment buildings of only two stories? Six or so seems more likely.

  11. Sheila Welch says:

    Thanks, Richie, for checking out what the book actually says. Rereading is a worth the effort. It’s disconcerting to discover just how off the mark reviewers and readers can be.

  12. Well, out of everything I’ve read this year, this one is my favorite book of all – one that I will undoubtedly go back and re-read. But I don’t think I would spend one of my precious nominations on it, because of many of the reasons people have already mentioned.

    Leda, I totally agree about the one-or-two sentence paragraph thing – I didn’t see a reason for that. It seems almost like an attempt to “Ivan” up the prose. (Get it? “Ivan”… liven… Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I also felt that, while the narrative voice – Willow’s narrative voice – felt kid-like for the most part, I could feel the author pulling the strings at times. And finally, I saw lots of happy coincidences near the book’s conclusion leading to a happy ending – not all completely unrealistic by any stretch, but the combination of things was definitely a stretch. So yes, a wonderful, wonderful book, but I think the issues would take it out of the running for me.

  13. While I flat out enjoyed this story I never bought Willow’s level of genius. I’ve heard tons of fictional account of children building computers I’ve never met a child who could. This began to feel very Forrest Gumpish by the end.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      There is a lot about Willow’s “genius” that didn’t buy. Additionally I didn’t buy the idea that they would have thought Willow cheated on that test. Why not simply retest the kid in a more controlled setting?

      • I forgot how upset I was by the principal’s response. I work with educators every day and even at their worst I don’t know a single one who would jump to the cheating conclusion after a perfect test.

    • I have known a child who was Willow’s age who built his own computers. It isn’t that out there, but that person is truly brilliant. The school’s reaction puzzled me, though. I can’t imagine she wasn’t tested before this and that this would have been the first time she performed well on a standardized test.

  14. I thought of Willow as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She pretty much went along and did her own thing and everyone’s lives were changed by her – it especially was annoying with the cab driver. I never bought her genius, which wasn’t really explored at all but used mostly as a way to get her to Dell, and I really wondered why her previous coping skills (like the counting) were never used when she desperately needed to cope with the change around her. It had a vague fairy tale feel, but I couldn’t buy into it and believe in the characters. It felt like everything was meant to happen, so it did. Bam, enough money to buy an apartment building. Bam, won the lottery. It was all inevitable. Even her mother was probably always going to die, the accident just came a little early.

  15. Martha Meyer says:

    I truly enjoyed this book. It struck me immediately as similar to Eva Ibbotson’s heroines who always have a beneficial effect on the folk around her. (Star of Kazan, Journey to the River Sea, and some of the Romance –now marketed YA — fiction). Also, it seemed a bit like Seedfolks, Fleishman’s gem about the beneficial effect of gardens on troubled folks. I did not think of Willow as autistic. I fel that it really did not really fit into the DEAD PARENT genre but is more about how mysteriously and beautifully family develops. I also loved the character of Del and found the cab driver’s adventures humorous and touching. I think this book reminds us of the joy of humanity, the absolute loopy sweetness of people we come to know and love. I think it is distinguished for how it does this, deftly, with tongue in cheek, and with wild joy in its heart. It is not a deeply realistiic book — it is a hopeful book. It deserves to be savored. And with my life experiences I found Pattie to be very possible. My vote for the Newbery goes to True Blue Scouts or Doll Bones, but I would still celebrate if this one won. A joy and no mistake.


  1. […] Counting By 7s | Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog by Jonathan Hunt […]

Speak Your Mind