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Counting by 7s Summary, Characters and Themes

“Counting by 7s” is a middle-grade novel by Holly Goldberg Sloan. It tells the story of Willow Chance, a twelve-year-old genius who finds comfort in counting by sevens and her love for plants. 

After her parents die in a car accident, Willow’s world turns upside down. She must learn to navigate grief and build a new life for herself. The book explores themes of loss, finding your place in the world, and the importance of unconventional friendships. 


The book introduces us to Willow Chance, a brilliant 12-year-old with a deep love for the number seven, plants, and diagnosing medical conditions. Adopted by loving parents, Willow has always felt different, her quirks making it hard to connect with others. 

Her life is comfortable, yet navigating middle school presents challenges, like being accused of cheating on a test due to her unusual brilliance. This leads to her meeting Dell Duke, the school counselor, who is instantly fascinated by Willow.

A chance encounter with Mai and Quang-ha, two Vietnamese-American high school siblings also waiting for Dell’s counsel, sparks a unique friendship. Willow even dedicates herself to learning Vietnamese to better connect with Mai. 

Her budding world is utterly shattered when a tragic car accident claims the lives of her parents. Suddenly an orphan, Willow’s future hangs in the balance.

In a beautiful act of compassion, Mai and her family decide to give Willow a temporary home, hiding her from Child Services. Their living situation in a garage behind their mother’s nail salon is far from ideal, and to avoid raising suspicion, they falsely use Dell’s address. 

This leads to a frantic but heartwarming transformation of Dell’s bachelor apartment as they prepare for a home inspection.

Willow’s life takes on a new rhythm. 

She befriends their taxi driver, Jairo, whose own life is positively influenced by her wisdom. Yet the weight of grief is heavy upon her even as she adapts to her new surroundings. Finding solace in gardening, Willow transforms the dusty courtyard of the apartment building. This blossoming garden becomes a symbol of her own potential for growth and healing.

However, just as stability seems within reach, Child Services locates Willow, intending to place her in a permanent home. Mentally steeling herself for yet another upheaval, Willow’s world is turned upside down again. 

At the final hearing, surrounded by the unexpected family she has found – the Nguyens, Dell, and Jairo – she learns that Jairo and Pattie, who have fallen in love, are seeking custody. With a stroke of luck, Willow is granted the right to stay, returning to the makeshift but love-filled family home in the Gardens of Glenwood.

Holly Goldberg Sloan masterfully weaves a story exploring profound loss, the resilience of the human spirit, and the importance of unconventional connections. Willow’s narration, peppered with scientific terms and Vietnamese phrases, reflects both her intelligence and her evolving world. 

Real-time storytelling, punctuated by a key flashback, skillfully balances Willow’s grief journey with the impending deadlines of her legal situation. 

Plant metaphors provide a poignant thread, marking the stages of Willow’s journey. While moments of introspection and raw sorrow abound, the story ultimately triumphs with a message of hope and the healing power of love in its most unexpected forms.

Counting by 7s Summary


Willow Chance

The heart of “Counting by 7s”, Willow is a complex and endearing protagonist. Her genius-level intellect sets her apart, evident in her love for medical diagnoses, plant knowledge, and her fascination with the number seven. Her social awkwardness stems from feeling misunderstood, but underneath it lies a deeply compassionate and observant spirit. 

Willow’s grief journey after the loss of her parents is the core of the novel. We witness her numbness, confusion, and the gradual process of re-learning how to feel joy and form bonds. Her love of gardening becomes a powerful symbol of her emotional growth, demonstrating her remarkable resilience.

Dell Duke

Willow’s unlikely connection with Dell, the jaded school counselor, is both heartwarming and transformative. Initially going through the motions, Dell is reawakened by Willow’s brilliance and sees potential in his life he’d long buried. 

He steps outside his comfort zone, going as far as participating in the charade of creating a fake ‘family home’ for Willow when Child Services becomes involved. Dell shows us that even those stuck in ruts can find inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose through the most unexpected relationships.

Mai and Quang-ha Nguyen

These Vietnamese-American siblings form the core of Willow’s new family. Mai’s fierce determination and bold spirit mask her own vulnerabilities. Her decision to protect Willow demonstrates a deep sense of loyalty and defiance against the system. 

Quang-ha, an artistic soul often on the fringes himself, finds a kindred spirit in Willow. His quiet acceptance of Willow and his artwork provide another avenue of emotional connection that aids her healing.

Pattie Nguyen

Mai and Quang-ha’s mother, Pattie, is a force of nature. A hardworking immigrant running her own nail salon, she initially embodies a tough exterior. However, her compassion for Willow leads her to take risks. 

Her unexpected romance with Jairo adds a touch of lightness to the story and reveals her own capacity for love and change.

Jairo Hernandez

The taxi driver who becomes an integral part of the makeshift family, Jairo is initially depicted as someone simply getting by. Willow’s astute observations shake him from complacency. 

Sparked by Willow’s potential, he finds the motivation to return to school and create a better future for himself. Jairo represents the idea that it’s never too late to find a guiding star and change your path.


1. The Unconventional Nature of Family

“Counting by 7s” presents a heartwarming critique of the traditional nuclear family model. Willow’s own experience exemplifies that family bonds aren’t solely determined by bloodlines. 

Her profound connection with her adoptive parents demonstrates the power of love, nurture, and mutual understanding in creating a true ‘home’. Their absence leaves an aching void, but what Sloan beautifully highlights is the potential for family to evolve. 

The Nguyens, initially strangers driven by compassion, provide sanctuary and, over time, become Willow’s lifeline. Dell, the eccentric counselor, transitions into a paternal figure, offering guidance and stability. Even Jairo, initially just a service provider, connects with Willow’s wisdom, leading to a bond that extends beyond mere transactions. 

This novel advocates that family is a dynamic construct, shaped by love, shared experiences, and the willingness to extend oneself to create a network of support.

2. Resilience in the Face of Loss

Willow’s world is irrevocably shattered by the sudden death of her parents. Sloan depicts grief unflinchingly, not as a linear progression but a messy, overwhelming experience. 

Willow’s initial detachment and her reliance on clinical language can be misconstrued as coldness, but it’s her coping mechanism for an unbearable reality. Crucially, resilience for Willow isn’t about forgetting or suppressing pain. 

Her re-engagement with gardening – a passion shared with her parents – symbolizes a willingness to nurture herself and allow for new growth, even in the shadow of loss. It’s a testament to the enduring human spirit that, even within profound sorrow, a pathway toward healing and a reimagined future can be found.

3. The Importance of Embracing Differences

Willow’s brilliance, her fixation on medical diagnoses, and her adherence to the patterns of ‘sevens’ make her an outlier. Society often pressures individuals to smooth out their unique edges to fit in, but Sloan’s message is profoundly pro-individuality. 

Willow’s most fulfilling relationships blossom when she’s allowed to be her true self, without the need to apologize for her oddities. Mai and her family see beyond the surface, recognizing the kind heart behind Willow’s unusual communication style. Dell champions her unconventional intellect, challenging the school system’s narrow definitions of excellence. 

The novel suggests that our differences, when celebrated instead of suppressed, become the avenues for our most authentic connections. It’s in embracing the full spectrum of personalities and perspectives that we create a vibrantly accepting community.

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