What makes a home? Is it a sister? Parents? A brother? A backyard filled with plants, plants you love? This is what I thought about as I read Holly Goldberg Sloan‘s Counting By 7s, a beautifully, thoughtfully written book about twelve-year-old Willow who comes home from school to the devastating news that she’s lost both her parents.
Willow’s grief is heart-wrenchingly internal. She’s already a unique child who acts more adult and has no other family or friends to lean on. And so we meet the people who happen to be there when she finds out the news: Dell, the unlikely school counselor; Mai, a teenager able to talk her way into anything; and Quang-ha, her somewhat delinquent brother. They surround Willow with temporary custody until permanent placement can be found, and it’s a type of living Willow has never experienced: bedrooms with more than one person, a garage that fronts as a home and a school counselor that needs Willow as much as she should need him.
The characters are alive in this book. Willow’s voice is so strong, and it is tempered with grief. Listen: “Mai wants to know if I want to lie down. But I can’t speak. In any language. Pattie makes soup that is cloudy white with curly pieces of green onion floating on top. And there is suddenly a plate with salty pork strips, which appear from nowhere. Dysphagia is the medical term for not being able to swallow, and I know that there are two kinds of dysphagia: oropharyngeal and esophageal. But maybe there is also a third kind of dysphagia that comes when your heart breaks into pieces. I can’t swallow because I have that kind.”
Willow makes it mostly through the grief; the others help her in many ways but the most amazing part is the reader sees how this extraordinary person, Willow, helps them in the midst of her pain. And we find out how to create a home out of nothing.