Diversity is a constant, important topic in the children’s book world. Do today’s titles adequately reflect the variety of our nation? Has publishing moved beyond the multicultural trend of the 1990s to feature characters whose race, culture, religion and cognitive or physical ability may be incidental to, rather than the sole focus of, the story? Happily, we can add Holly Goldberg Sloan’s tender, nuanced “Counting by 7s” to the contemporary novels that seek to embrace the broader range of the American experience. Adopted at birth by a loving white couple, 12-year-old Willow Chance is a “person of color” (her term) and a genius obsessed with medical conditions and plants. At her California middle school, Willow’s oddities soon land her in weekly sessions with the district’s incompetent counselor. There she befriends a scrappy teen named Mai Nguyen. When Willow’s parents suddenly die, Mai persuades her mother, Pattie, to take in the girl on a temporary basis. Thanks to her history as a bullied mixed-race kid in Vietnam, Pattie bonds fiercely with the grieving child. This lovely, wise tale is not just about loss but about survival, connection and kindness, and its narrative style underscores the theme of community. Sloan skillfully intersperses chapters in Willow’s quirky “old soul” voice with those in the third person from the perspective of key secondary characters. The effect mirrors the gardens that Willow loves to create, in which each plant is a valued presence in “the larger whole that surrounds us all.”

Mary Quattlebaum


By Holly Goldberg Sloan

Dial. 380 pp. $16.99. Age 10 and up

“Counting by 7s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan. (Dial)