Counting by 7s

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Counting by 7s Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Striking tale of quirky girl connecting after parental loss.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 36 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Through Willow, kids will learn a number of facts about gardening, plants, and flowers, medicine and skin diseases, and other random things, like lemurs and the Native American Cahuilla tribe that once thrived near Bakersfield, CA. They'll also learn a bit about the foster care system. Willow teaches herself Vietnamese and uses and translates a few phrases. She uses the library as a refuge, and books play a prominent role in her life. 

Positive Messages

It's possible to survive the toughest things you can imagine in life. Sometimes found friends can become as precious as family. Even if you're very different from most people, you can find people who'll understand appreciate, enjoy, and value you just the way you are. When a number of people pitch in, you can accomplish great things against all odds. The library is a great resource, and can be a refuge.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Counting by 7s offers an array of positive, diverse characters -- a white counselor who's transformed by really caring about three of his students, a Vietnamese nail salon owner who takes a total stranger under her wing, a Mexican taxi driver who's re-inspired to follow his dream of going back to school, two Vietnamese-American teen siblings -- a troublemaking boy who lets down his guard, makes new friends and re-engages, and a fashion-loving girl who leads Willow out of darkness with her warm and easy friendship -- and Willow herself, a "person of color" who does lie to her parents and defy authority on occasion. But mainly she uses her extreme intelligence to help people (like telling the cab driver he should have a dangerous-looking mole on his neck checked out) and make her corner of the world a better place, even at a time of great personal suffering. Even minor characters, like the nursery man who pitches in to help Willow grow a community garden, are inspired by her can-do attitude and positive energy.


The protagonist's parents are killed in a car crash, but it's not described in any detail or with any blood or injuries shown. A girl faints and cuts her head on a coffee table, and dispassionately narrates the experience: "Blood suddenly is everywhere, because blows to the head bleed profusely." But she's soon taken to the hospital to get stitched up (without description) and bandaged. 


Two adult characters fall in love, but the reader only gets hints of the realtionship developing in that direction until it's a done deal. A man and a teen boy watch TV together and comment on girls onscreen being "hot" and "super-hot." It's mentioned that many Vietnamese women had babies with African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War. There's a brief mention of infertility and miscarriage. 


Diet Pepsi (decried by Willow as "not healthy"), Fosters Freeze, Teen Vogue, Discovery Channel, Costco, Ford, the Salvation Army, Home Depot, Band-Aid -- all used for realistic scene-setting.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Counting by 7s is an exceptional novel that deals with a death and grief. The 12-year-old protagonist, Willow Chance, is a genius outsider whose parents are killed in a car crash as the book begins, but the accident's not described in graphic detail. The only blood in the book appears when Willow faints and cuts her head on a table. Positive role models abound in this heartwarming story that shows how grief feels but is ultimately a celebration of the indomitable human spirit. And though it's marketed to kids as young as 10, it could appeal to teens, as well, as it tackles complex feelings and issues of fitting in and features two compelling teen characters.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMissPiggy November 8, 2019

Funny as well as sad

Counting by 7s is very touching. It is a beautiful story that may have readers laughing and crying at the same time. It has some violence, such as a scene where... Continue reading
Adult Written byRenee S. March 26, 2019

Beautiful, touching and original story!

The narrator is a genius and so she is quite intriguing. She is also relatable to high school students because she has trouble fitting in. It is refreshing that... Continue reading
Written byAnonymous May 26, 2020

Cringy portrayal of gifted children

The portrayal of gifted children in this book, namely the main character, is very stereotypical. Willow doesn't have many personality traits other that she... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old March 12, 2018


Counting by 7s is a wonderful book!
It's written very well;the first part of the story tells about Willow and her life, but in the second part is about a n... Continue reading

What's the story?

Willow Chance is a 12-year-old adopted girl in Bakersfield, CA, a self-described "person of color" who's obsessed with gardening, rare skin conditions and other medical oddities, teaches herself Vietnamese, and counts by sevens to relax. Her white parents are the only people who really understand her -- her teachers never do, and her only friend moved away. At the start of middle school she scores 100 percent on a standardized test, prompting her teacher to send her to the school counselor, assuming she cheated. The counselor, a sloppy, burned-out slacker, snaps out of his doldrums when he figures out she's a genius, not a cheater. After Willow loses her parents in a car crash, the counselor takes an interest in her and two other misfit students of his -- a teen brother and sister -- and all of their lives become entwined with devastated Willow's.

Is it any good?

This amazing novel offers an indelible, appealing outsider protagonist and a cast of quirky, good-hearted characters who intersect against a backdrop of a 12-year-old's unimaginable loss. Chapters are variously narrated either by Willow or an omniscient narrator. The ones in Willow's voice are filled with offbeat "field note" observations and dry humor, as well as stunning metaphors that capture the numbing experience of grief, such as "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 Willow doesn't become bitter, and the novel is more heartwarming and uplifting than sad. Her teen friends' immigrant single mother, who's struggled to provide for her kids, kindly steps up to help Willow, and the girl appreciates how she maintains her even disposition no matter what life throws at her: "Maybe that's what happens when you've been through a lot," Willow reflects. "All of your edges are worn off, like sea glass. Either that or you shatter."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about grief. Have you had any family members pass away? How did your family cope with the loss?  

  • How hard is it to be someone known as "different" in middle school? Why is there so much pressure to conform? 

  • What's the definition of a family? Is it just blood relatives, or can you create a family and sense of home with friends and caring adults who have your best interests at heart?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories and strong female characters

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