(Janie and Betsy are continuing their chat about some of the outstanding children’s literature being touted for the coveted Newbery award–yes, there are people who speculate and handicap and figure the odds, just like for the Oscars and Golden Globes. See our thoughts about The Real Boy, Flora & Ulysses, and The Center of Everything. Next up: The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp–and a Newbery-related announcement!)
Janie: Willow Chance, a 12-year-old mixed-race genius, is starting middle school with the determination to fit in—a forlorn hope, since she sees nothing unusual about showing up on the first day in gardening clothes. She’s an obsessive gardener, an obsessive counter, an obsessive hand-washer—and did we mention genius? She runs into trouble right away with the principal, who accuses her of cheating on the state proficiency test and assigns her to a counselor. Said counselor, Dell Duke, is a loser who doesn’t seem fit for anything else and who is also ineptly handling the cases of Mai Nguyen and her brother Quang-ha. This unlikely quartet is coming back from an ice cream break when Willow receives the worst news any kid can imagine.
Suddenly orphaned through a terrible car accident, Willow must learn to navigate the edges of an unfeeling system while trying to stay out of it. Life, I now realize, is just one big trek across a minefield and you never know which step is going to blow you up. But her Asperger’s/ASD (we never hear a specific diagnosis), which makes it so hard to figure things out, also allows her a unique slant on the situation—one that seems other-worldly wise to some of her new acquaintances. She who was never able to form close relationships beyond her adoptive parents is discovering that others are attracted to her, and it’s frightening at first: The world of plants is a slippery slope. It’s hard to care just a little. Dell will also be drawn out and challenged, particularly in the way he labels people (Misfits, Oddballs, Lone Wolfs, Weirdos) as a self-defense mechanism. This becomes a tale of transformation, with a very positive message, strong characters, an engaging story line and nothing objectionable (except that two adult characters move into a romantic relationship with no thought of marriage). There’s a down side, but first I’d like to hear your thoughts, Betsy.
Betsy: I’m betting we’re on the same page here, Janie (as usual!). This novel definitely has some strengths, but I agree: it’s not perfect. In fact, I’ll go on record as saying this is the weakest of our “books with buzz” that we’ve been discussing. Strengths include strong characterization across the board and an engaging writing style. Willow’s transformation from isolated genius to friendly genius is believable, and Dell has a similar transformation that feels believable within the story. Quang-Ha, too, seems to change in reasonable ways. I think the weak link is the plotting and an element of predictability within this story type. It’s a little too happy at the end–almost unbelievably so. The garden analogy is predictably used given Willow’s absorption with the plant world. The last third of the book felt a bit Hallmark-movie-ish to me (that’s a technical term 🙂 ). I’ve been struggling with how best to label the worldview in the book, too. People clearly can help change their own destinies, but they also seem to need the community around them for full flowering. No one in the book seems to have any religious leanings in any direction, so that doesn’t factor in at all. And yet, the taxi driver has a mythic reverence for Willow and her influence on his own life (which the reader can clearly see is simply a result of her amazing powers of observation and accompanying intellect, not any mystical element). Still…it’s hard to nail down.
Janie: A lot of reviewers have remarked on the unlikely coincidences and non sequiturs—for instance, one character who was living at sub-poverty level is suddenly revealed, at a convenient point in the plot, to have plenty of money—wha-a-a-a? If Counting by 7’s is intended to be realistic fiction, this is all too much. To me it felt more like magical realism, with Willow as a kind of “holy fool” or accidental saint at the center of it. If I had to describe the worldview, it might be something like “spiritual communalism.” Is that a designation? Willow experiences some transcendent moments, such as a burst of gratitude while out on a run, and by the end she’s discovered the value of community: When you care about other people, it takes the spotlight off your own drama. Very true, and perhaps some readers will be encouraged to look outside themselves. But with no higher personality to look to, without God to direct and mediate our relationships, we don’t know drama from discord.