Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
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.
Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Wonder by R.J. Pallacio
I’ll Give You The Sun
I’ll Give You the Sun, the 2015 Printz Award and Stonewall Award winner, follows Noah and Jude, twins who cling to their childhood closeness despite growing apart as they become teens and face both personal and family tragedies. The chapters are told from each twin’s point of view at two different times in their lives. In Noah’s chapters, which chronicle his being bullied, creating art, and falling in love with a boy while popular Jude hangs out at the beach with her girlfriends, the twins are 13. In Jude’s chapters, when the twins are 16, their lives have seemingly reversed; now Noah is a popular athlete dating one of Jude’s old friends while Jude, withdrawn and miserable, struggles through art school until she is taken in by a famous sculptor and his mysterious and dreamy housemate. It is clear that something has shaken up Noah and Jude’s word in the time between their 13th and 16th years, and piece by piece, secret by secret, of which there are many, the truth comes to light.
I had heard mixed reviews from friends about this book, which almost always happens when a book wins an award. I found some of Jandy Nelson’s devices a little gimmicky. Noah has parenthetical asides that name his thoughts and emotions as pieces of art – “(SELF-PORTRAIT: Boy Detonates Grenade of Awesome).” Jude’s equivalent is excerpts from a “bible” full of weird, clever, or insightful sayings and advice from her dead grandma, with whom she still talks – If a boy gives a girl an orange, her love for him will multiply. The book tackles big subjects – homosexuality, death, betrayal, rape, suicide – but without judgment and with so much hope. There’s also no denying Nelson’s ability to shape characters in a way that lets them, in the course of one book, start out one way, do a total 180, and then resolve into a believable conclusion that doesn’t wrap things up too nicely. In the end, I’ll Give You the Sun is worthy of the award and worthy of your reading time.
P.S. – The Guardian printed a great interview with Jandy Nelson last month about the book, her writing process, and the fact that I’ll Give You the Sun has been optioned for a movie. Check is out here.
Just try to name another bird that kids are more into than the penguin. I personally think it is because they are earthbound, so they don’t fly away like the seagulls I always see kids chasing at the beach or the nasty pigeons I see kids chasing at the park. They are an aviary anomaly, a bird that can swim but can’t fly! And if you believe Happy Feet, they can dance too.
But before March of the Penguins or Surf’s Up, there was Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a book about a guy who receives a penguin in the mail as a gift from an Antarctic explorer (awesome!) and a second penguin in the mail from an aquarium (double awesome!). When the two penguins start breeding at an unnatural rate and the Poppers have to pay their bills, Mr. Popper takes his 12 penguins on the road as a circus act. He eventually ends up in a NYC jail because of the ruckus the penguins cause. Luckily, Admiral Drake, the explorer who sent the original penguin, is there to bail Mr. Popper out and take him and his penguins to the South Pole, leaving the rest of the Popper family behind.
Animal exploitation, biological impossibilities and family abandonment aside, this was one of my very favorite books when I was a kid. And now it is going to be made into a movie starring Jim Carrey and some occasionally CGI, occasionally real penguins. I’m nervous about seeing this modernized film version and definitely won’t pay to see it in theaters, but I’ll likely pick it up from the library when it comes out on DVD. Hopefully it doesn’t break my heart!