Counting by 7s

countingby7s

Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Dial Books
August 2013

Unexpected tragedy hits Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius with a passion for gardening and medical diagnoses, when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is nearly put into foster care, but through some quick talking, she is allowed to live temporarily with her only friend, Mai, and Mai’s mother, Patty, and brother, Quang-Ha. The only other caring adults in Willow’s life are sad sack school counselor Dell Duke and a cab driver named Jairo who thinks Willow is a miracle sent to save him from cancer. They go to great lengths to help Willow and she, unintentionally, helps each of them to have a new outlook on life, a new home, or a new relationship. A court appearance that will determine Willow’s fate hangs over everyone’s head throughout the book and comes to a touching climax in the end.

The characters in Counting by 7s are really what make the book, and Dell Duke was my favorite. From Miss Honey in Matilda to Mr. Terupt in the series by Rob Buyea, teachers in children’s books are almost always too good to be true; they are savior, angel, substitute parent, or sage. Dell Duke is the opposite of all of these things by nature, making him the most subversively written teacher (ok, technically he is a school counselor) I’ve ever read in a children’s book. He’s a slovenly slacker who faked his resume to get his job. His filing system categorizes the kids he “helps” into judgmental categories. He’s antisocial and terrified of responsibility. Willow naively sees the best in him and after a while he begins to see potential in himself through her care for him. However, he is still himself in the end, just a slightly improved adult for having met Willow Chance.

In 2014 Counting by 7s was optioned for a movie staring Quvenzhane Wallace as Willow, but no more news has come out since then.

Read Alikes

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Wonder by R.J. Pallacio

Ungifted

ungifted

Ungifted
Gordon Korman
Balzer + Bray
August 2012

When impulsive middle schooler and underachiever Donovan Curtis accidentally causes thousands of dollars in damage to his school’s gym, he needs a place to hide from the superintendent bent on bringing him to justice. Donovan’s wish comes true when an acceptance letter from the Academy for Scholastic Distinction lands in his mailbox, a clerical error having sent him to a school full of geniuses. It’s clear from the beginning that he is not particularly gifted or even smart, but he brings some much needed levity to the Academy. He names the robotics team’s robot Tin Man Metallica Squarepants, joins the robotics team as Tin Man’s driver thanks to years of video game experience, and saves the geniuses from mandatory summer school when yet another oversight by the school district threatens to bring them up short on their Health and Human Development (basically sex ed) credit. Donovan can’t hide forever, but as the “normal” savior of his Academy class, he has the help of his new friends to stretch his time at the Academy out as long as possible. The story is told from many points of view – students, teachers, Donovan’s sister Katie – in alternating chapters, but the voices are not very distinct from one another, relying mostly on gimmicky chapter titles to differentiate which character is narrating. Narration issues aside, the story has a lot of heart and an imperfect ending that is just right for these characters.

While the book was so-so for me, I can see it really resonating with kids like Donovan – reluctant readers, underachievers, pranksters. Korman lays on the normal-kid worship pretty thick with Academy students and teachers claiming that Donovan “brought us to life” and “without him nothing worked” and even that they “don’t deserve Donovan” at the Academy. On the other hand, how often do you see an underdog kid getting so much praise and appreciation from teachers and the gifted students? Normally they are getting in trouble, being told no, or being didactically presented as someone who needs to change or who is not worthy of praise. Instead the reader is told that all kids have value, even the troublemakers, and that is a message I can get behind.

I also have to commend Korman for the way he wrote Katie, Donovan’s sister. She is in her 20s, pregnant, and living with her parents while her husband is fighting in Afghanistan. Some books have addressed the effects of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but not nearly enough compared to the number of real life families actually affected. Katie was not the focus of the book obviously, but her presence and the story behind her character are an important inclusion that I really enjoyed and appreciated and that I think military families will appreciate too.

Read alikes

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Chomp
 by Carl Hiaasen
Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler (for a slightly younger audience than Ungifted)

What’s the rhythm, Langston? Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast

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Hold Fast
Blue Balliett
Scholastic
Available March 2013

How can a bicycle accident, a Dutch diamond heist, an old Langston Hughes poetry book, and some librarians launch a hard working, hard dreaming family on the South Side of Chicago into homelessness and a search for their missing father? Blue Balliett has the answer in her surprisingly ambitious new mystery Hold Fast.

Balliett tackles much heavier subject matter in Hold Fast than she did in the Chasing Vermeer series that made her into a household name in mysteries for children. Not only does she tackle issues and the experience of homelessness, she also writes against race. She is a white woman writing about a black family living in South Side Chicago, a neighborhood with areas of extreme poverty, and the success with which she portrays the Pearl family (at least to this white girl!) speaks both to her writing ability and her research. I also appreciate the smart, virus and resourceful character she has created in Early Pearl, the main character and heroine of the story. Not nearly enough middle-grade chapter books have characters of color, let alone ones as worthy of admiration as Early, though at times she can be a little too good to be true.

Even more rare than non-white protagonists is characters that are homeless. My librarian heart cries out for more books that say “Hey kids, guess what! Some people have real problems!” You know, problems beyond unrequited crushes or falling in love with a vampire/angel/ghost/werewolf. Even I learned something from this book about living in a shelter, desperately looking for a job, trying to figure out who will watch your kids even if you do get a job, and the list of terrifying things I never want to experience first-hand goes on. Thank goodness some of us only have to live that nightmare from the safe distance of books.

The layout is also somewhat avant garde as children’s books go, with chapters opening with dictionary definitions of the chapter names – many of them onomatopoeia – and a line-drawn symbol representing the same word. The symbol reappears throughout the chapter. If this sounds weird or confusing, that’s my fault for trying to describe it. I suggest you grab a copy of the book to kook at if you get a chance…or just take my word for it that it’s kinda cool, if a tad gimmicky.

My librarian heart also fell hook-line-and-sinker for Balliett’s references to classic literature (the title comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams”), the importance of reading, the Chicago Public Library, and word play at all socioeconomic levels. I don’t want to ruin anything by saying to much about the public library’s role in the mystery, but let’s just say I enjoyed, with some skepticism as to the mechanics, the library being the center of some intrigue and excitement. Storytime at my library can get crazy and all, but it can’t compete with missing persons, jewel heists, and questionable HR decisions.

To be honest, I don’t read many mysteries, but I may have to start if I can find others that combine the heart, smarts, and library love that Blue Balliett has packed into Hold Fast.

Buying it for the library?: I already did!
Recommending it to: boys and girls grades 5-8