by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence: “We sit together outside the Fosters Freeze at a see-green, metal picnic table.”
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Release date August 29, 2013
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Every once in a while there comes a middle grade book that’s perfect. I know, I know: that’s a lot to live up to. But, really: this one is.
To begin with it has an age-old, very tired, depressing premise: 12-year-old Willow Chase’s parents have died in a horrible car accident, and now she has to Deal With Things. But, Holly Goldberg Sloan (whose first book, I’ll Be There, was also magnificent) is such a talented writer she takes a cliche situation and turns it on its head.
Willow Chase is an exceptional girl. She’s a quiet one, obsessed with numbers (counting by 7s, mostly), medical conditions (as in human ones; she’s great at diagnosing things and diseases fascinate her), and plants (her backyard in Bakersfield, CA is practically a garden of Eden.). She’s black, but her adopted parents are white. And she wasn’t fitting in in her new middle school, which is how she ended up in counselor Dell Duke’s office for cheating.
In fact, she was with Dell and two other kids he counsels — a Vietnamese brother and sister: Mai and Quang-ha — when she got the news that she was now an orphan. And that’s when the real story starts. Willow, naturally and believably, doesn’t quite know how to deal with the sudden death of her entire family. (Her parents, conveniently, don’t have siblings or parents either.) But rather than leave Willow to the system, Mai steps in an makes a difference: she convinces her mother to take Willow in.
The real heart and soul of this book — and the real reason it’s so perfect — is that Sloan never makes it feel depressing. In fact, even though Willow’s going through a hard time and Sloan never forgets that, it’s an incredibly hopeful one. She plays with the idea of family and of connectedness in unexpected ways. On top of being absolutely refreshing with her subject matter, she never talks down to her reader. Sure, her sentences are simple — it is a middle grade book after all — but they are never simplistic. She respects her characters and her readers, and knows how to pick the best words to make the book flow, even when it’s being simple.
In other words: practically perfect in every way.