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Book Review: Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Any fan of Joss Whedon knows that one of the core concepts of his storytelling is the notion of the chosen family. There are the families that we are born into, and there are the families that we choose, that find us. In Buffy, it was the Scooby gang. In Firelfy it was the crew of Serentiy. And when the Avengers assembled, well, they were making for themselves not just a rag tag team of superheroes, but a group that has the potential to become a chosen family.

In Counting by 7s, author Holly Goldberg Sloan used the concept of the chosen family with brilliant results. And the concept comes up in her newest title, Just Call My Name.

Just call my name and I’ll be there . . . The Jackson Five

Sam and Riddle Border are foster kids living with the Bell family. Their father is behind bars, an abusive and deadly psychopath who doesn’t like the fact that his two boys are moving on without him. Sam and Emily are dating, Sam is starting to take some college classes, and things look like they are moving in positive directions for all.

Then, just as a hot wind turns on a dime, so does good fortune.

First, Destiny shows up. Like Sam, she is the motherless child of a man who sits in jail. So she has learned how to survive on her own. When she meets Sam, she sees a kindred spirit, their stories are so similar after all. But she also sees something else, these kids seem to have something that a life moving from barely surviving situation to barely surviving situation doesn’t seem to offer. What she sees in them is not only opportunity, but perhaps a sense of belonging she never could have imagined. Of course she is going to play a lot of games to try and make the situation turn in her favor; Destiny knows how to manipulate a situation.

Clarence Border also gets a voice in this story, as many of the alternating chapters are his story to tell. Step into the mind of a brilliant though definitely scary madman. You’ll see him orchestrate his escape from prison. You’ll hear his most innermost thoughts as he makes the slow, steady journey to punish his boys for their ultimate betrayal. You’ll hear every inner most thought as he tells you what he is doing and why, and marvel at how brilliantly a con man can analyze a situation and bend it in his favor. Clarence’s mind is a disturbing mind to walk through, but it is truly fascinating.

Then, in one chilling moment, where emotions run high, feelings are hurt, and communication has broken down, all the story elements come together in a life threatening situation for many of our teens. Sloan does this amazing little dance of tension, bringing all the story points together until they explode. Then the race is on, and a thrilling race it is, a race in which our characters must navigate intense emotions, hard truths, and rise to the occasion because failure will tear this made up family apart.

Sloan manages to deftly write those moments – the little ones – where little shifts are made. One small decision can be like pivoting on the balls of your feet while walking down the sidewalk; one moment you think you are headed in one direction but you notice a stolen glance or you let a moment of jealousy enter into your heart and you don’t realize you are making the tiniest little pivot in your direction. If you make enough of these little pivots, one day you’ll look up and realize you are heading in the wrong direction entirely. The first half of this book was all about these relationship dynamics, about friendship and family. Destiny plots to steal Sam, Emily struggles with jealousy, friend Robb explodes with what he is sure must be passion, and Sam fears losing this little oasis of peace and family he has managed to build for himself as he fears that he might not be that different from his father after all.

The second half of the book becomes this intricate cat and mouse thriller where all those relationship dynamics in the first half come into play. It was so good.

On an interesting note, after writing most of this review I went and looked at what the journal reviews had to say. It turns out, Just Call My Name is a sequel to I’ll Be There, which I own but have not yet read. I mention this because Just Call My Name was completely readable in every way without having read the first novel, it stood strongly on its own legs. I had never met the characters before and cared for each one. This is a very strong story about friends and family wrapped nicely with a tense psychological thriller bow. Definitely recommended.

One final note: Robin is working on a post about teens and prison as we speak. Recent statistics indicate that the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the developed world. Alarmingly, 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Not only will some of our teens spend time in jail, but many more of them are affected by these stats as they have family members that have or will spend time in jail. These statistics are so alarming that Sesame Street recently ran a segment that introduced a muppet whose father was in prison. And John Oliver did a very informative rant on the topic on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. And recently an inquiry found that teens being held at Rikers Island were being subjected to abuse by corrections officers. Most people incarcerated are not a psychopathic killer like Clarence Border, but having characters who wrestle with a parent being in prison and the effects that it can have on their lives is an all too necessary addition to young adult literature.

Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan was released by Little, Brown on August 5th. ISBN: 9780316122818

7 Thoughts I Had While Reading Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Book Review)

I basically read Counting by 7s because I ran into John Corey Whaley at TLA earlier this year and he said it had the potential to be this year’s Newbery award winner.  I kind of feel like you should listen when an award winning author recommends a book, so I read it.  He was not wrong.  Counting by 7s is an inspiring book with a great, unique voice.  Below, I share with you seven things I thought while reading Counting by 7s by Holly Golberg Sloan.

But first, a synopsis:

Counting by 7s is the story of Willow Chance, the adopted daughter of an older couple who die in a car accident at the beginning of our book.  Willow is a genius with an uber green thumb and a tendency to be obsessed with medical conditions.  Her unique character makes it difficult for her to blend into our world, and she doesn’t have a lot of friends or many people to turn to in the midst of her loss.  But a variety of characters come into her life that help her navigate the difficult waters of grief and each of them in turn find ways to change their own lives for good.  In the end, Counting by 7s is a story about how we build families with the people in our lives and manage to hang on by our fingernails in the face of adverse circumstances.  It is a moving story of love and hope and how sometimes complete strangers can completely turn your life around and become a family.

Be Inspired, Be Very Inspired

“For someone grieving, moving forward is the challenge. Because after extreme loss, you want to go back.” 

This is hands down one of the most inspiring books I have read.  It basically tells 4 different stories: the main characters, the story of the Vietnamese siblings and their mom that take her in, the school counselor’s story, and the story of a taxi driver, and weaves them all together in this message of hope and built family.  I really loved that this was a clean, inspiring, feel good story that made me want to run to the top of a grassy knoll and spin around with my arms out singing.  Sometimes it is nice just to read an uplifting story and remember that in the end, most of us end up in an okay place even in the face of incredible loss and difficulty.  For me, this is the Wonder of 2013.  For that reason alone, I highly highly highly recommend it.  This is the ultimate story of triumph over tragedy with a beautiful magical realism that courses through it veins and just enchants.

When is Diversity not Diversity

Willow makes friends with two Vietnamese school mates and their mother, Pattie, who eventually become her adopted family.  I loved that there was this diversity included, but I kind of cringed at some of the stereotypes perpetuated here, the main one being that the mom, Pattie, owned a nail salon.  And they lived in extreme poverty conditions.  I also loved how Willow used her genius brain to learn Vietnamese so she could talk to her new found friends and respect their heritage. So in terms of healthy diversity I kind of consider this depiction a wash.  The characters themselves are rich and nuanced, but it definitely perpetuates a few stereotypes.  For the record, I asked Christie and she said this would not have bothered her if the family was still portrayed positively, which they were, so I guess this is a non issue.

Another Look at Poverty?

With news focusing on the increasing number of people (children) living in poverty, I was moved by this look at a family living in poverty.  Willow’s friends literally live in a garage with no running water and use a hot plate to cook on when we first meet them.  There are some big reveals later in the book though that really shake up this picture (see spoilers at the end of the post).  To me, this was the only flaw in the book, which we can’t discuss in depth because it would be a massive spoiler.  So I cheat and discuss it at the end if you want to take a peak.

More Than Labels

“It’s possible that all labels are curses. Unless they are on cleaning products.” 

While reading Counting by 7s I kept thinking about the TV show The Big Bang Theory.  If you spend anytime online you know that many people speculate that Sheldon has Aspergers, although he reassures us that his mother had him tested.  In the beginning of this story, I kept wondering if Willow had Aspergers and I wanted Sloan to give her a label.  This is, in part, because I think it is empowering for us as readers to take a look inside minds that are different than are own.  But it is also, in part, because our minds just seem to want to label everything.  But then Willow herself says the most profound thing about labels and I was able to let the need go.  Why must we label everyone and everything that seems different than ourselves?  Labels can be empowering, they can help people get services and education, etc.  But they can also put them in boxes and help set them up for failure.  In fact, this book without labels – except for the school counselor Dell’s truly messed up labelling system – has some profound things to say about labels.  I loved the way Sloan says it and feel it was such a powerful statement.

What Is Going on in Our Schools?

Teachers today are getting a bad rap in the media, which is unfortunate because most of the teachers I know are dedicated, hardworking, passionate professionals who sacrifice a lot of personal time and money to be successful at their jobs.  Dell, the guidance counselor in Counting by 7s, does not start out as a very good example of a school employee.  He makes it clear that coasting is his goal and he is not in any way vested or qualified to do his job.  But Willow sparks something in him that challenges him to invest.  Of course he then breaks a ton of legal and ethical rules that puts his job in jeopardy, but I give him points for deciding to care.  His story arc was interesting to read, but it was the least realistic and the most problematic given what we know about the laws governing those who work with kids.  Though to be fair, this is by no means a truly realistic story but has an air of magical realism about it when you consider how the garden kind of transforms them all.  Remember, I said Willow was into gardening.  There’s a garden.  Its place and use in the story is very beautiful.  Not since the Secret Garden have we seen such an enchanting garden.

It’s Not Just for Kids

This book is being marketed to the MG crowd, which makes sense because at the heart of it is the story of Willow, an MG kid.  But I think it is appropriate for and works for all ages.  Although this is mainly the story of Willow, it is also the story of many adults as well including Dell the counselor, Pattie the mom, and the taxi cab driver.  These voices are also well depicted and will resonate with older readers.  I really want EVERYONE to read this book.  It is that beautiful.

Flawed but Profound

In the end, I think Counting by 7s is a 5 star book in terms of writing, style, characterization and voice.  Willow has a unique voice that manages to come across as both gifted and still childlike and it is sustained throughout the narrative.  I think there are a few storytelling bumps along the way, including the stereotyping of the Vietnamese family and the ending that would make sense to no mother, but Sloan manages to create a moving, inspiring story that brings together the lives of 6 people and reaches a broad age range of readers.  It is one of my favorite reads of 2013.  4.5 stars, because in the end I subtract half a star for some issues that concerned me or didn’t resonate well. This joins Wonder by R J Palacio as a book that I just recommend across the spectrum for everyone to read.

So . . . About That Ending

Below There Be Spoilers

Serious Serious Ending Revealing Spoilers

I Am Not Kidding – Spoilers

Okay, so I really wanted to talk about the ending.  So, it turns out Pattie, the mom, is actually super rich and can, in the end, buy an entire apartment building for Willow.  Her children are living in a garage with no running water, they eat meals prepared on a hot plate . . . but somehow she is moved to buy an entire apartment building for this child.  The actual children that she gave birth to do not warrant an actual, comfortable apartment, but Willow, a child she has just met, somehow does.  I really had a hard time with this.  As a mom, I just couldn’t imagine.  And it changed the way I felt about the whole rest of the book.  What was a heartbreaking look at poverty became a mother who was really not an awesome parent and who would have her children taken away by children services in real life.  I don’t know how others felt about this aspect of the story, but it did not sit well with me and it really struck me as a deus ex machina.  Technically, you can say she didn’t buy the apartment building just for Willow (they all benefit and move into a positive place, which is beautiful), but Willow is the impetus.  And it will turn out to be a positive change for her and her children.  But how could she have let them live like that for those years?  Maybe it won’t bother others the way it did me, but I got to talk about it so I feel better.  Although I make it sound like a big deal, it obviously didn’t bother me enough to make me not recommend the book, and highly.  So take it for what you will.