Counting by 7s

Written by: Holly Goldberg Sloan

For parents of independent readers, we provide a set of questions that should give you insight into what your child is reading and help you engage him/her in meaningful conversations about literature. We recommend using the questions provided here as a springboard for deeper conversation about Counting by 7s and what your child takes away from the book. Enjoy!



Twelve-year-old Willow Chase lived with her adoptive parents in Bakersfield, California. There in the midst of the high desert, she grew a garden in her backyard, her sanctuary. She was excited about starting a new school, hoping this time she might fit in, might find a friend. Willow had been identified in preschool as highly gifted, most of the time causing confusion and feelings of ineptness in her teachers. Now at her new school she is accused of cheating because no one has ever finished the state proficiency test in just 17 minutes, let alone gotten a perfect score. Her reward is behavioral counseling with Dell Duke, an ineffectual counselor with organizational and social issues of his own. She does make a friend when Mai Nguyen brings her brother, Quang-ha, to her appointment, and their lives begin to intertwine when Willow's parents are killed in an auto accident. For the second time in her life she is an orphan, forced to find a “new normal.” She is taken in temporarily by Mai's mother, who must stay ahead of Social Services. While Willow sees herself as just an observer, trying to figure out the social norms of regular family life, she is actually a catalyst for change, bringing together unsuspecting people and changing their lives forever. The narration cleverly shifts among characters as the story evolves. Willow's philosophical and intellectual observations contrast with Quang-ha's typical teenage boy obsessions and the struggles of a Vietnamese family fighting to live above the poverty level. Willow's story is one of renewal, and her journey of rebuilding the ties that unite people as a family will stay in readers' hearts long after the last page. (School Library Journal)

Pre-Reading Activity

KWL Chart

Create a K-W-L Chart and have your child fill in the first two columns with information that s/he knows and wants to find out about the story. S/he can fill in the last column, "What I Learned", once s/he has finished the story.

What I Know

After reading the summary of the story, let your child think about what s/he already knows about the story. Consider questions like "Who is the main character? What information do we already know about her?"

What I Want to Know

Include questions that your child might have about the plot, characters and setting. Think about including questions like, "What's so special about the number 7? What tragedy does Willow experience?"

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Maintain a Vocabulary Journal

Encourage your child to stop when s/he gets to an unfamiliar word. See if s/he can discover its meaning by using context clues like prefixes and suffixes as well as the words surrounding it. Help him/her by keeping a “Vocabulary Journal” nearby when reading so that your child can write down new words, that s/he has either already defined or wishes to look up in the dictionary.

Discussion Questions

  1. What sparked Willow's love for the number 7? Do you have a favorite number? If so, what is it and why?
  2. "It's possible that all labels are curses. Unless they are on cleaning products." In what context did Willow say this? What does she mean by this? What are some labels that people give to kids your age? What is the problem with these labels?
  3. What would your impression of Willow have been if you were in her class? Now that you've read her story, what is your impression of her? Would you want to be friends with Willow? Why/why not?
  4. Why was Willow forced to start seeing the school counselor? Why didn't she want to tell her parents about it at first?
  5. Describe Dell's character. Who is he and how does his character evolve throughout the story?
  6. Willow experiences an incredible amount of hardships in her young life. What are they, and how do you think they shaped the person that she became?
  7. When Willow moves in with Mai and her brother, how does she adjust to this new life?
  8. How does the story end? Do you like the way that it ended? Why/why not?

Extending the Story

What are the 7 most important things in your child's life? Let your child write out their list, with an explanation of each list. You can make your own list too! Encourage your child to think about each item in terms of numbers. For example, if one item is family, consider how many family members you have, how old they are, what your combined ages are, how many times you've done ______ together, etc. For friends, how many years you've known each other, how much time you spend together, and so on. See if your child can find any patterns in his/her own list, also considering the patterns mentioned in the story. Not only will it allow your child to think about the people and things that s/he cares most about, but it will also allow him/her to see the world in terms of numbers like Willow Chance does. See if your child can incorporate a few of the words in his/her vocabulary journal into this exercise as well.