True story: Under the “Taste Preferences” tab in Netflix, where you can review what sort of movies Netflix believes you like to see, my wife and I have earned a “never watch” in the categories of feel-good, inspiring, and sentimental. With that in mind, I have to say that the latest book I’ve read, Counting by 7s, a YA-novel by Holly Goldberg Sloan, comes perilously close to feel-good and inspiring.
I wasn’t totally put off by the book; in fact, I enjoyed it overall, and there were parts of it I liked a lot. The main character is Willow, a 12-year old girl who is something of a child prodigy, able to pick up foreign languages in a few weeks and full of facts, though devoid of social graces. Her interests are plants, medical conditions, and the number 7. You can probably already imagine that she’s not too popular at her middle school. Her only friend moved away the year before, and now she only has her plants and her parents. These are taken away from her in one swoop, when her parents die in a car crash, and she’s thrust into the youth protection system.
Fortunately, she had already become acquainted with a school counselor after being accused of cheating on a standardized test (she’d gotten a perfect score, although of course she earned it honestly). This counselor, Dell Duke, is one of the worst school counselors in history, a self-involved loser completely uninterested in his students’ lives or his job and with a private organization system that involves assigning each student who comes to him with the label of “oddball”, “weirdo,” “lone wolf,” or “misfit.” Another of Dell Duke’s charges, Quang-ha, a high-school delinquent, and his overbearingly bossy sister, Mai, become involved in Willow’s life when they search for Dell’s runaway cat together.
If you guess that this unlikely group would somehow bond and change each other for the better, you are not on the wrong track. This goes down better than it might thanks to a large dollop of humor. I laughed out loud a number of times while reading this, and nearly every chapter has a situation or conversation that made me at least chuckle.
Nevertheless, I found the book somewhat predictable. Not any particular part of it, and there are some nicely zany and surprising moments, but the overall direction. Another thing that bothered me was a minor but recurring character that Willow meets, a taxi driver named Jairo. When she sees an odd-shaped mole on the back of his neck, she recommends he see a doctor, and it turns out to be cancerous and caught just in time. Their other encounters are similarly serendipitous, with the whole subplot feeling jammed in to show how special Willow is, rather than because it really serves the larger story in any way.
I cannot say this is one of those YA books I think a lot of adults would like, but I do think middle-schoolers would enjoy its humor. I found it clever and don’t think it was a waste of time to read, but for me the author sacrifices plausible plot and character development, especially at the end, to shoehorn in an inspirational message.
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