Willow Chance is a genius 12 year old obsessed with counting in multiples of 7, studying and caring for plants, observing and diagnosing medical conditions, and trying to navigate the social complexities of middle school. Shortly after beginning the school year, and being forced to visit the school counselor for suspicion of cheating, Willow's parents are killed in a car accident. Reeling from her loss, Willow is taken in by Vietnamese acquaintances she knows only slightly through her counselor. And in their little one-room garage behind a nail salon, she begins to put her life back together under their care. When her social worker finds a permanent foster home for her, Willow braces for yet more upheaval in her life.
My first thought about Willow Chance after reading only the first couple of chapters was that listening to her narration was often like listening to the younger sister of Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. She is highly intelligent and remarkably self-aware, regularly commenting to herself that she understands she must follow social conventions rather than speak every assertion that she recognizes as truth. A perfect example of this is when she's riding in a cab and spots a concerning nevus (mole) on the driver's neck. She wrestles internally with the social convention of a 12 year old telling an adult that he should get a mole checked. Further, each of the supporting characters in this novel were fully developed with strengths and flaws that felt authentic. Holly Goldberg Sloan did a remarkable job of providing characters that I could care about while I still grimaced at their failings. The ending did feel a little odd to me, especially where Jairo was concerned. (If you haven't read the book, I don't want to spoil it so I'll leave my remark at that.) Either way, the ending did not detract from my personal feelings about this book, which is that I'm actually shocked it was not at least a Newbery Honor book. Willow's voice was consistently strong, and the dialog was perfect. Although this novel falls into the middle grade category, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone over the age of 10 (adults included). It's truly that good.