Counting by 7s Book Poster Image

Counting by 7s

Striking tale of quirky girl connecting after parental loss.
Popular with kids

What parents need to know

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

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. 

Not applicable

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
Not applicable

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.

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."

Families can talk 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

Author:Holly Goldberg Sloan
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Cats, dogs, and mice, Friendship, Misfits and underdogs, Science and nature
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Dial Books
Publication date:August 29, 2013
Publisher's recommended age(s):10 - 14
Available on:Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
Award:ALA Best and Notable Books

This review of Counting by 7s was written by

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Great handpicked alternatives

Top advice and articles

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Educator and Parent Written byCSM Screen name... February 6, 2014

Touching, well characterized

I recommend this book to all people who can care for others and find a sense of family and acceptance with anyone. (or who need to see that fact). Great characters and strong female main character.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Kid, 12 years old November 6, 2014

Counting By 7s

I really love this book! I wrote a book report on it for my homework. All my friends loved it so I recommend kids or even adults at any ages to read this book. It's a wonderful book, similar to Out Of My Mind and Wonder.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Kid, 10 years old September 8, 2013


Wow so good any age would like this.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence