Some people have lucky numbers; others have lucky stars. Holly Goldberg Sloan credits her career change, and her subsequent success as an author of children’s books, to something a little different: a lucky shrimp.
Alas, said shellfish wasn’t so felicitous for Sloan’s husband. But for her, it touched off a life-changing transition from screenwriter (numerous feature films, including Angels in the Outfield) to author (2011’s I’ll Be There, and now Counting by 7s).
In a phone call from her Santa Monica, California, home, Sloan told BookPage the story of how her first book came to be: “My friend asked us to go on a trip, and didn’t give a lot of specifics. It turned out we went to a vegetarian yoga resort, which was totally cool with me, but my husband isn’t a vegetarian and doesn’t do yoga. The first night, I asked if they had meat or protein of any kind. They were able to get a limited amount of shrimp, so he ordered that.”
Then, gastrointestinal disaster struck—and between her husband being out of commission for a week and the resort’s no-Internet-or-TV policy, Sloan found she had some time to kill. “It was really serendipitous,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone on a crazy vacation in Mexico, where I was on my own and my husband was in a stone hut, sick . . . I wouldn’t have had so much time on my hands, and started writing a book.”
Fortunately, Sloan’s husband was not harmed during the writing of her brilliant second book, Counting by 7s, which draws readers into the singular world of eccentric 12-year-old Willow Chance.
Sloan has created a story where the line between youth and adulthood moves back and forth.
Willow applies her prodigious intelligence to her hobbies: a thriving and varied backyard garden, and the diagnosis of medical conditions. “I am particularly drawn to skin disorders,” Willow explains with a seriousness that is at once amusing and endearing, “which I photograph only if the subject (and one of my parents) isn’t looking.” She also counts by sevens to establish a soothing sense of order. “It’s an escape technique,” Willow says.
But when her parents, with whom she has a loving relationship, are killed in a car accident, Willow’s pain cannot be organized or soothed away. Even worse, the policemen who gave her the terrible news are asking about next of kin—and she has none, save a grandmother with dementia.
Then a lie spoken out of compassion—a new friend, Mai, tells the police her family has known Willow’s for a long time, and can thus take her in—offers a temporary reprieve. It also segues into a memorable story of kindness among friends and strangers, the dangers and rewards of taking risks, and ultimately an exploration of the meaning of family.
Sloan’s gift for storytelling is evident: Her characters are sometimes kooky, but not too; trust is earned and happiness tentatively blooms, but not so quickly as to seem unlikely; and Willow’s sorrow isn’t smoothed over, but rather recognized as an addition to her new, unpredictable existence.
If anything might seem improbable to readers, Sloan says, it’s probably Willow’s preternatural poise and smarts. “I know that some people will read the book and think it’s not possible, that Willow seems to have superhuman powers,” she says. “But they just haven’t been around a kid like that. If you’ve been around highly gifted kids, some of them do seem to have superpowers, and corresponding confidence. Those kids spend more time with adults . . . but because they’re more comfortable with adults, they become outcasts in their own peer group.”
Sloan says she’s “always been interested in those kinds of kids,” not least because she was sometimes one of them, which she drew on when creating this story. For example, during one year in elementary school, she left her classroom twice weekly to visit a nearby college campus, where “the psychology department was conducting an experiment rewarding gifted children.” Sloan says, “It was so strange, and it made me feel like an outsider.” In Counting by 7s, Willow leaves class for regular visits with her school’s counselor, Dell Duke—something that further sets her apart from her peers, too.
In addition, Sloan’s father’s job as a consultant to the Peace Corps meant her family had a new address every few years, so she was the new kid in class many times. “I had a peripatetic childhood that in many ways informs who I am today, and influences my writing because I very much identify with outsiders,” she says.
And, she adds, “You can approach that in two ways: Be Willow-esque and retreat to live in your own head, which is a great place to live on some levels, or throw yourself into the situation. Mai . . . throws herself into the world and makes as many connections as she can, while Willow does the opposite until she’s forced to do something else.”
But it’s not just Willow who must learn to behave differently; the adults in Counting by 7s have some growing and changing to do, too. For example, Dell Duke has long categorized the kids he counsels (as misfits, oddballs, geniuses, etc.), but Willow and her friends defy his descriptions. And Mai’s mother’s routines are upended, which makes her cranky—but also leaves her more open to the unexpected.
Sloan says that aspect of the book struck a chord with one of its first readers: “I gave it to a precocious 11-year-old, and she said her favorite character was [taxi driver] Juan, by far. She said she liked him because Willow made him change without even trying. And I know what she’s saying—she’s very attracted to the idea that she could be doing this in the adult world, too.”
It’s easy to imagine that readers—whether kids, adults, young-at-heart adults or precocious kids—will find themselves taken with, even inspired by, Counting by 7s. Sloan has created a story where the line between youth and adulthood moves back and forth, often more than once in a single day—and where kids and adults “have relationships that are real and go both directions,” she says. The book is a moving, often funny reminder that such relationships are worth cultivating, and that being open to new people and experiences—however strange or difficult they may seem—can lead to wonderful things.
After all, look what happened when Sloan and her husband went on that vaguely described vacation, and her husband ate that fateful, tainted crustacean! “I’m hoping that today my husband also thinks it was a lucky shrimp,” Sloan says. “But I don’t ask.”