I have a vague memory from years ago of my mom telling me about this book after listening to some program on NPR that mentioned it. Ever since then, it was on my mental to-read list. In January, it was discounted on the iBooks store and I decided to read it.
For many, Counting by 7s is considered a novel with a protagonist who is on the autism spectrum. Or, at least, neuro-diverse (ND) to some extent. The author claims she just wanted to write a story about a gifted child. While “gifted” might be a more apt title for Willow, I did read this book under the assumption that Willow was autistic, or, at least, meant to be read as autistic. And therein lies my disappointment with this novel: Willow’s neuro-diversity poses no major problems for her throughout the course of this conflict-light story.
Willow is a really fun character who has many unique interests, but still manages to find a way to connect with others, both teens and adults. Despite suddenly losing her parents in a car crash, she exhibits minimal signs of grief and just sort of shuts down her emotions. Most convenient of all, a group of misfit adults go out of their way to take care of her and be her guardians, preventing her from ending up in the system. While her savant-like intellect paints her clearly into the stereotypical portrait of an Autism Spectrum Disorder,
While her savant-like intellect paints her clearly into the stereotypical portrait of an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the often frustrating and more challenging behaviors associated with this diagnosis are completely absent. Never once does she throw a tantrum or become incredibly upset over the immense amounts of change thrown her way. No repetitive motions or self-injury. Her interests and obsessions (like counting by 7s) are something she can stop doing at will or not bring up when she recognizes it’s not socially appropriate. Willow simply exists as a perfect, brilliant child, and to me, that seems like she loses her humanity; she’s a fairytale, not a real girl with an ND diagnosis trying to live through significant tragedies and changes.
And the easiness with which she lives her ND life removes a lot of potential conflict from a story that really doesn’t have a lot of conflict to begin with. So my expectations didn’t match what I read. It just didn’t have the emotional intensity and discussion of the issues that I expected from a novel that has an ND protagonist (especially compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).
But there were some redeeming qualities to this novel that made is an easy and enjoyable read. I love the variety of characters and perspectives. Everyone was so different from each other, but I liked them all and I enjoyed seeing them come together and form a sort of quasi-family.
The book is shelved as Middle Grade, so maybe that’s partly why this story is so light on conflict. Yet, Children’s and Middle Grade doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. Death and being different are very popular topics in this category, but this novel’s discussion of both falls short of the standards I personally hold.
Title(s): Counting by 7s
Author(s): Holly Goldberg Sloan
Overall Rating: 3/5
Genre: Middle Grade
Format Accessed: iBook
Imprint: Penguin Younger Readers Group
Publisher: Penguin Random House