Holly Goldberg Sloan

Mama has trained up her baby possums
in the ways of their breed, and now it's
time for all of them–even little Apple-
blossom–to make their way in the
world. Appleblossom has learned all
the rules but still can’t resist exploring.
So, rescue mission ensues when she
accidentally falls down a human family’s
chimney! Now it’s up to her brothers to
save her.
Sam Border wishes he could escape, but
there's nowhere for him to run and noth-
ing besides his little brother to care
about. He has lived his life in the back of
truck, under the threat of his criminal
father. And then Sam sees Emily Bell.
That's when everything changes.
Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old
genius, obsessed with nature and diag-
nosing medical conditions, who finds it
comforting to count by 7s. It has never
been easy for her to connect with anyone
other than her adoptive parents, but that
hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly
happy life... until now.
I’ll Be There FOLLOWUP: Emily Bell has
it all. This summer is destined to be the
best time of her life. But the biggest
threat to her happiness is someone she
never saw coming. Sam's criminally
insane father, whom everyone thought
they'd finally left behind, is planning a
jailbreak. And he knows exactly where to
find Emily and his sons when he escapes.
  • The Golden List Award.
    Best Book of the Year (ages 1-15) in HOLLAND.
  • The 2012 Peggy Miller Award for Young Adult
    Literature from the Children’s Literacy Council of
    Southern California
  • Nominated for Best Book of the Year
    CONNECTICUT The Nutmeg Award Nominee 2014
    SOUTH DAKOTA Young Adult Reader Nominee
    COLORADO Blue Spruce Award Nominee 2014
    WASHINGTON Evergreen Award Nominee
    MISSOURI Gateway Readers Award Nominee
    ARKANSAS Teen Book Award Nominee 2012-2013
  • Booklist 2011
  • Bulletin of The Center for Children’s Books 2011
  • Horn Book 2011
  • Horn Book STARRED 2011
  • Library Media Connection 2011
  • Publishers Weekly 2011
  • School Library Journal STARRED 2011
  • Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)
  • Children’s Literature Council of Southern California 2012 AWARD for YA Fiction
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults 2012
  • A Los Angeles Library Best Book For Teens 2012
  • Milwaukee County Teen Book Finalist 2011
  • Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2012
  • ALA, American Library Association TOP 100 Book
  • July 2012 Rahm’s Young Adult Reader for Chicago
  • Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2012
  • The Free Library of Philadelphia’s
    Field Family Teen Author PICK 2011
  • E.B. White Read Aloud Honor Book 2014
  • Horn Book STARRED Review
  • BookList STARRED Review
  • Voya STARRED Review
  • School Library Journal STARRED Review
  • Southern California Independent Booksellers
    Association (SCIBA) 2014 Finalist Best Book for
    Middle Grade
  • American Library Association Best Fiction for
    Young Adults 2014
  • American Library Association Notable Children's
    Books - Older Readers 2014
  • A New York Times Bestseller
  • 2014 Notable Children's Books in the Language
    Arts (from Children's Literary Assembly)
  • Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young
    People 2014
  • BuzzFeed #7 on the 20 Best Children's Books
    of ­the Year
  • A National Public Radio Best Book of the Year
  • AMAZON Best Middle Reader novel published in
  • Teacher's Choice Book AWARD 2014
  • Children's Literacy Council of Southern California
  • Excellence in Juvenile Fiction 2014 AWARD
  • #4 on the INDIE BOUND 2013 Fall Book Pick
    Top 10 Anticipated Releases. 
  • Nominated in 15 States for:
    TEXAS Blue Bonnet Award Master List 2014-2015
    New Hampshire Great Stone Face Book Award
    Kentucky Bluegrass Award 2014-2015
    Connecticut Nutmeg Award 2014-2015
    Georgia Children's Book Award 2014-2015
    Ohio Buckeye Children's Book Award 2014-2015
    Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award
    Maine Student Book Award 2014-2015
    Mississippi Magnolia Book Award 2015
    Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award 2014-2015
    Rhode Island Teen Book Award 2015
    North Carolina School Library Media
    Association 2014-2015 Young Adult Book Award
    Pennsylvania Keystone To Reading Book Award
    Colorado Children's Book Award's, Junior Book
    Wyoming Library Association's Soaring Eagle
    Award 2015
  • BUZZ BOOK of 2013 by the Book Expo America.
    4 other books in my category were also chosen.
    I want to mention them: 
    A Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates
    #1: Magic Marks the Spo
    t by Caroline Carlson,
    The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward,
    Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab by
    Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, Quirk
    The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick, Algonquin Books
    for Young Reader
  • BLUE RIBBON middle reader Honoree at the
    American Library Association's 2013 Summer
    conference in Chicago. The other Penguin BLUE
    RIBBON book is Julie Berry's All The Truth That’s In Me. I want to mention this because I really love
    this book.

Appleblossom is the smallest of Mama Possum’s babies. She may be little, but by the time she’s just a few months old she must be prepared to face, on her own, the great big world and the many dangers it holds for possums. Appleblossom is timid, but she’s also curious — and skeptical of Mama’s warnings, which is how she becomes interested in a small monster (a human girl) and falls down a chimney into the monster’s house. This is just the beginning of the wild and wholly engaging adventure on which Appleblossom unwittingly sends two of her brothers. It takes them from the safety of their neighborhood all the way to big-city night life. More important, it shines a spotlight on Mama’s teachings about the solitariness of possums.

In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightfully amusing imaginings of possum life, the reader learns that possums are, above all else, actors — and heavily steeped in the tradition. When they are still tiny, they begin learning the craft. Mama teaches her babies about ensemble companies versus solo acts, overcoming stage fright (“Fake it until you make it, possums”), and of course death scenes: Playing dead is singularly vital to possums. “Dead is the only way to stay alive,” Mama says.

As entertaining as Appleblossom’s early months are, she soon learns a tough lesson: Possums are solitary creatures. Mama grooms her youngsters to be independent — of her and of one another. Possum families do not stick together, no matter now much Appleblossom might wish otherwise. But Mama turns out to be a complex creature. When Appleblossom’s brothers search for Mama so that she can aid in the rescue of their sister, they not only discover Mama’s secret life, but find her championing the “tribe of possums.” Solitary though these unforgettable possums may be, they are not alone.—Ann M. Martin, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Possums: I thought they hung out in the country. Or in eucalyptus forests in Australia. Not outside my Brooklyn apartment, looking like small dogs with beady little eyes and claws that haunt your dreams. Like the hipsters and the foodies, the possums have come to Brooklyn, and I’m not happy about it.

So I picked up Appleblossom the Possum, the third novel by Holly Goldberg Sloan (author of the phenomenal Counting By 7s) as a skeptic. There was no way this friendly creature on the cover, waving no less, (waving!) was the real deal. Her sweet name, Appleblossom, it was a ruse; a ploy. As it turns out, in Sloan’s lovely book, possums are masters of deception. They’re the true performers of the animal kingdom, having to put on a brave face, in order to get some grub and steer clear of the true monsters: cars, dogs, and us.

Appleblossom, the last newborn possum to crawl into her mother’s pouch behind twelve siblings, is less sure what role she’ll play as she and her brothers and sisters train for the life of a solitary animal or, as her mother calls it, their first “solo show.” You see, acting is fundamental to the life of a possum. Not only do possums have to act brave and confident in the face of real-world threats (the aforementioned cars, dogs, and people), but they also have to, literally, play dead if they encounter life-threatening dangers.

With wonderful pink-tailed black and white illustrations by Gary A. Rosen, we follow Appleblossom and two of her loyal brothers as they sleep the day away, then walk the night to “grind the grub,” even if they wish they were still safe in their mother’s pouch.

It’s when the curious Appleblossom falls into the chimney of a family’s home that her bravery is truly tested, and she discovers that she’s smarter and more daring than she knew in the face of a potentially final performance; that one last curtain call.

Using this kind of playful language of the theater to explain how possums stage their lives, Sloan takes us through the use of props, improvisation, gut instinct, and, even the moon as a spotlight, as the possums find danger and adventure around every corner. The antics of the possums aside, much of the book’s humor comes from the perspective of Izzy, the household’s only child, who is in search of a “real pal,” as well as the book’s true villain, her dog Columbo, whose one track mind (getting hold of a red ball) switches fast when Appleblossom enters his home. (There’s a great bit on Columbo “doing his business,” as Izzy’s parents call it, which Izzy envisions as Columbo sitting at a desk in an office, pretending to do work but actually watching videos of other dogs.)

In the end, Izzy’s search for a friend, and the importance of friendship and family, are at the heart of the book. While looking for a part to play, Appleblossom discovers that the role of family in her life is as vital to her as her ability to perform. Sloan’s light-hearted, funny, and clever tale is perfect for the young animal lovers and adventurers in your life. It even made this possum skeptic believe there might be more to this misunderstood marsupial than meets the eye. Maybe the possums I’ve seen have come to Brooklyn to get closer to Broadway.

Are your kids ready to meet Appleblossom the Possum?—Melissa Sarno, BNKids Blog

A young possum topples down a chimney to become the pet of a little girl while her brothers try to rescue her.

The runt of a litter of baby possums, Appleblossom spends several months inside her mother’s pouch before Mama Possum introduces her babies to the dangerous world. Mama explains that as solitary, nocturnal, nomadic marsupials, they must hide by day and avoid dogs, humans, and cars. When her babies are ready to survive on their own, Mama leaves. Insecure and afraid, Appleblossom and her brothers, Antonio and Amlet, stick together until curious Appleblossom accidentally tumbles down a chimney into the house of a girl named Izzy. Thrilled with her adorable new pet, Izzy pampers Appleblossom and conspires to hide her from her parents and dog. Determined to save Appleblossom, Antonio and Amlet stumble upon their parents, and together they stage a daring raid on Izzy’s house. Use of the present tense adds immediacy to Appleblossom, Amlet, and Antonio’s naïve, amusing, and endearing high jinks. Insights about possums add an educational element to this otherwise comic adventure, while humorous illustrations capture the wee possums’ antics and personalities.

A warm and funny possum-family saga.—Kirkus Reviews

Appleblossom, a small and brave possum, and her 12 siblings learn from their Mama Possum that the world is a stage and that acting is necessary for survival, especially against the various “monsters” (cars, people, pets) that threaten. Ever the explorer, Appleblossom gets stuck inside a small “monster’s” house, complete with a dog and disgusted parents; brothers Antonio and Amlet try to mount a rescue effort while Appleblossom takes on the role of plaything. Sloan (Counting by 7s) divides the story between Appleblossom’s shrewd thinking in the house and her brothers’ search for help in the form of a bedraggled possum named Big Poss, who turns out to be an extraordinary actor. Rosen’s pink-tinged images (not all seen by PW) bring a playfulness to many of the scenes. Amid the homey message that family matters most, Sloan seeds the story with assorted possum facts and vocabulary lessons, but it’s the possum-as-actor metaphor (“Playing dead is one thing. But smelling dead is another. It adds a whole other layer to a possum performance”) that generates the most fun.—Publishers Weekly

FIERCE AND FURRY. Mama Possum has done her best to impart wisdom to her newborn “A” possum brood—Antonio, Alisa, Abdul, Ajax, Alberta, Angie, Allan, Alphonse, Atticus, Alejandro, Augusta, Amlet, and the littlest possum, Appleblossom. There are many rules that must be followed in the possum world—never be seen during the day, avoid cars (metal monsters), people, and especially the hairies (dogs). Mama Possum teaches the youngsters how to theatrically play dead to avoid the many calamities facing them daily. Mama tells the babies they are solitary creatures and need to fend for themselves, but when she disappears, the A clan doesn’t feel ready to face the world. Appleblossom and two of her brothers, Amlet and Antonio, band together and share stories of their new adventures out in the world. Curious Appleblossom finds a human home with a seemingly nice creature (a little girl named Izzy), but it also houses a terrifying beast of a dog named Columbo, who is intent on sniffing and destroying. When Appleblossom accidentally stumbles down the chimney into the house, it is up to her family to save her. An unlikely friendship and bond forms between Izzy and Appleblossom, and the possum must choose between family and friendship. Sloan has masterfully created an intensely satisfying and humorous tale that makes possums seem utterly adorable. Rosen’s charming illustrations pair beautifully with the text, as he draws the possums with intertwined tails, pink noses, and vivid expressions. VERDICT: A perfectly sweet animal tale, with just the right blend of humor, excitement, and uncertainty.
—School Library Journal, Michele Shaw, Quail Run Elementary School, San Ramon, CA

Heartbreaking, suspenseful, life-affirming, magical: I'll Be There is all of those things—and yet unlike anything I've ever read. Mere description doesn't do this book justice; only reading it does.— Gayle Forman, New York Times bestselling author of If I Stay and Where She Went

Holly Goldberg Sloan crushed my heart, accelerated its beat, and then lit my chest aflame. I'll Be There reminds us that empathy is an extremely powerful force, and perhaps our most beautiful.
— Matthew Quick, author of Sorta Like a Rock Star and The Silver Linings Playbook

A harrowing survival story.... Sam and Riddle are wonderfully appealing characters that readers will root for. A highly suspenseful read with a dynamic, cinematic quality that keeps the pages turning to the satisfying conclusion.
— Booklist Review April, 2011

­­­Illustrates how we are all connected in big and small, positive and negative ways....[This] riveting story will keep readers interested and guessing until the end.— School Library Journal, STARRED review

­­­[A] life-affirming exploration of the subtleties of love, compassion, and relationships. . . . Like the song it was named for, this book is hard to get out of your head.— The Horn Book, STARRED review

­­­Sloan builds characters rich with depth and realism... A terrific read, quick to capture the audience, this book will make readers sing the melody in their hearts.— VOYA, STARRED review

­­­Sloan, a film writer and director (Angels in the Outfield and Made in America), has fashioned a cast of memorable characters with compelling stories and relationships.— Kirkus April 1, 2011

I'll Be There is a fascinating glimpse of life at the very edge of society: thrilling, romantic, and so suspenseful I had to peek at the end for the sake of my peace of mind. The scrappy, resourceful Sam and Riddle are two of the most compelling and original characters to come along in ages.— Natalie Standiford, author of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters

­­­A phenomenal hold-your-breath read. Sloan has created a heart-thumping adventure out of love, loyalty, brotherhood and tragedy and has given readers a touching, unforgettable journey.— A.S. King, author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz and The Dust of 100 Dogs

­­­Do not start this book if you have homework because your homework won't get done. Ideally, you would read it on a long flight. That way people will leave you alone until you've consumed every single page.— Laura McNeal, author of National Book Award finalist Dark Water

­­­The fine but sturdy threads of connection in this story are woven into an intricate web of people, places, time, and love, holding Sam and Riddle’s world together, as they do all of ours.— Sara Zarr, author of National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl

­­­Teens will be swept away.— Laura McNeal, author of National Book Award finalist Dark Water


This was exactly the book I wanted to read. I hadn’t heard anything about it, didn’t have a single expectation. In fact, it was the one review copy I picked up at ALA that didn’t even have a real cover. It looks as though it is wrapped in a plain brown sheet of paper. (And no cover images are available online as far as I can tell.) There is no jacket blurb or any kind of description of the story at all.

I was captured right from the start.

This is the story of two boys, Sam and Riddle, raising themselves because their mentally ill father can’t. It’s about what happens when you connect with people. And how we are all connected and how the choices we make send ripples out across the world. It made me think about fate and destiny and karma. But mostly it’s about love. All kinds of love.

The writing in this story is simple and clear and brilliant. Told from a third person omniscient point of view, stepping into the lives of different people who meet Sam and Riddle; each and every character has depth and an interior life and history that goes on before and after their appearance in this story. I felt like I knew these characters even when they only appeared for a page or two.

Apparently Holly Goldberg Sloan has worked in films as a writer, director and producer – and that shows. This is survival story – both emotionally and physically. The plot – especially when Sam and Riddle are forced to leave the one place they’ve felt like they belong and end up in the wilderness – has cinematic potential. All along there is sweet romance and heartbreak, tension and danger and slapstick comedy. So I could see this as a movie, except that the very best most exquisite thing about this book is its emotional core. And I don’t think a movie has a chance of touching my heart the same way.

I’d love to put an excerpt here but since it’s a review copy, I can’t.

But I must say put this one on your list.— Sarah Wones Tomp

'You and I must make a pact...'-- Berry Gordy, Bob West, Hal David, Willie Hutch, I'll Be There

Sam thought about going back to the First Unitarians. But it wasn't possible."When you spend ten years being invisible, when you no longer know where you were born, and are not even sure when you were born (it had to have been the summer, because there were memories of an ice-cream cake and running outside through a sprinkler), when your father changed your last name, and you can't remember clearly what your mother even looked like, a room with that many strangers was as terrifying as a bed of sharp knives.

Intertwining a gripping survival story with a sweet tale of innocent first love, I’ll Be There is one of the best and most memorable books for twelve-years-and-up that will be published in 2011, and is one of my biggest finds at the recent ALA Midwinter meeting in San Diego.

Seventeen year-old Sam and his twelve year-old brother Riddle were kidnapped by their father -- a murderer and a thief -- a decade ago. Maintaining their anonymity over the years, their father has regularly moved them from place to place around the country (and sometimes out of it), keeping his truck equipped with a supply of stolen license plates, and packed as to be ready to leave at a moment's notice as he settles briefly in town after town to then live off of his break-ins into cars and houses. Every day, the two boys are forced to scavenge for their own food and otherwise fend for themselves. Sam, who has not been in school since the abduction -- when he was in second grade -- has raised the near-mute and sickly Riddle, who suffers from severe and never-treated asthma; who spends his days creating amazingly intricate drawings of the insides of mechanical objects on the pages of a telephone book; and who has never set foot in a school.

'The days of the week meant nothing to him. Except Sunday.'

Sam, a self-taught guitar player loves music and seeks out churches on Sundays where he can slip in, mostly unobserved, and listen to music being sung and played. So it is that he is hiding out alone in the back row of the First Unitarian Church on the Sunday that Emily Bell is compelled by her college music professor father to perform a solo rendition of I'll Be There during the service. In carrying out her performance strategy of singing to the back of the audience, she locks eyes with Sam and then, in the wake of her singularly abysmal performance, it is Sam who finds her out back of the church and holds her long hair out of the way as she regurgitates her breakfast. Exchanging scarcely a word with Emily, he then disappears.

Emily's subsequent search for the mysterious and striking young man climaxes with a hilarious scene involving an excrutiating double-date set up by her girlfriend, during which she unhappily stares out the restaurant window, suddenly sees Sam and Riddle walking down the street in the dark, and bolts from the restaurant to talk to him.

So the story of Sam and Emily begins.

'For Emily, he was more than she could have imagined. He wasn't like the other boys she'd done things with. He didn't try to tell outrageous jokes and/or bore her with stories where he was some kind of hero. He didn't boast about stealing his parents' vodka and drinking with friends or staying up all night to pull a prank. He didn't take out a cell phone and check for messages or have all kinds of attitude.'For Sam, she was like someone from another planet. Planet Contentment. She had energy and enthusiasm, and she had to have never seen what he'd seen, because she was so open and trusting.'

I’ll Be There tells the horror story of the price that must be paid when Sam and Riddle's father-from-hell finds evidence of what Sam has been up to.— Richie Partington, MLIS

Screenwriter and director Sloan delivers a cinematic, psychologically nuanced first novel of star-crossed love and the power of human empathy and connection.

Sloan excels at crafting memorable characters and relationships, from the central, transformative romance between 17-year-olds Sam and Emily, who meet after her disastrous church solo, to finely sketched cameos. Sam and his sensitive, possibly autistic younger brother, Riddle, live an isolated and itinerant existence, subject to the whims of their violent and deranged father, Clarence. Tension escalates as Emily's family becomes attached to the boys, growing concerned for their well-being, and an unstable Clarence takes off with his sons once again. It's agonizing but thrilling reading as Sam and Emily try to surmount the many obstacles Sloan throws at them. Her skills as a writer are never in doubt, though the story can at times feel melodramatic, especially as it turns into a survivalist epic, and a plot thread about a classmate enamored with Emily devolves into slapstick. But Emily and Sam's romance is that of the against-all-odds, meant-to-be variety, and while the ending is too perfect, it is unquestionably earned.— PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Children's Review 04/11/2011

Sloan has masterfully created a graceful, meaningful tale featuring a cast of charming, well-rounded characters, who learn lessons...about resourcefulness, community, and true resilience in the face of loss.– Sarah Hunter, BOOKLIST, STARRED Review

­­­Willow narrates her own chapters, and her clinical, scientific, pared-down observation of her own grief and healing makes events more poignant, not less.– Martha V. Parravano, The Horn Book, STARRED Review

­­­If you know by the end of chapter one that the narrator's parents have been killed, do you keep on reading?

If the story's skillfully written and the characters cleverly conceived, it's hard to stop.

Willow Chance – a perfect name for the highly-gifted narrator – begins chapter two of Counting by 7s by going back to the beginning, in a new school where she knows no one. Acknowledging both her strangeness and that, despite being a thinker, she's 'never the teacher's pet. Ever,' Willow seems untroubled by being outside the mainstream. Instead, she teaches herself Vietnamese, researches rare diseases, and tends her garden. Give credit to her adoptive parents, who 'Really Truly L-O-V-E' Willow. Or to her intriguing personality. This is one smart, resourceful 12-year-old.

Alternating chapters are told in the voices of her school counselor and an older girl whose Vietnamese mom runs a nail salon. With an array of distinctly fascinating characters parading in and out of the book, I truly hated to turn the last page. Yes, you can see the ending coming, especially if you are an adult reader. And things do tie up nicely. But that doesn't matter. The writing is remarkably funny for what could have been a sad tale of growing up surrounded by people who have no reason to care about you. In the capable hands of this writer, readers will adore Willow Chance and wish her a good and happy and mostly normal future with her new family.– Christian Science Monitor / By Augusta Scattergood SEPTEMBER 4, 2013

...extraordinary and even inspirational.– Publisher's Weekly Review

Readers can only hope for more characters like Willow Chase [sic] to come from this author.— Jennifer M. Brown, Shelf Awareness

A story of renewal and belonging that succeeds...— Kirkus

­­­I highly recommend this book, especially if you know kids of either gender who want to read something without magic, where people solve problems the hard way, and win answers that they deserve.– Kate - Sassafrakas Sass + Pop Culture

­­­...technically a YA novel, but deep and really moving.— Jeannine Stanley, NoBo Magazine, August 1, 2013

Diversity is a constant, important topic in the children’s book world. Do today’s titles adequately reflect the variety of our nation? Has publishing moved beyond the multicultural trend of the 1990s to feature characters whose race, culture, religion and cognitive or physical ability may be incidental to, rather than the sole focus of, the story? Happily, we can add Holly Goldberg Sloan’s tender, nuanced Counting by 7s to the contemporary novels that seek to embrace the broader range of the American experience. Adopted at birth by a loving white couple, 12-year-old Willow Chance is a “person of color” (her term) and a genius obsessed with medical conditions and plants. At her California middle school, Willow’s oddities soon land her in weekly sessions with the district’s incompetent counselor. There she befriends a scrappy teen named Mai Nguyen. When Willow’s parents suddenly die, Mai persuades her mother, Pattie, to take in the girl on a temporary basis. Thanks to her history as a bullied mixed-race kid in Vietnam, Pattie bonds fiercely with the grieving child. This lovely, wise tale is not just about loss but about survival, connection and kindness, and its narrative style underscores the theme of community. Sloan skillfully intersperses chapters in Willow’s quirky 'old soul' voice with those in the third person from the perspective of key secondary characters. The effect mirrors the gardens that Willow loves to create, in which each plant is a valued presence in 'the larger whole that surrounds us all.'— Mary Quattlebaum, The Washington Post

Twelve-year-old Willow Chance doesn't know how to deal with kids her age, despite hours of reading about teenagers. Preferring to work in her garden, diagnose medical problems, and count by 7s, Willow is possibly autistic, certainly strange. After a tragedy leaves her an orphan, she forms a new family out of a group of other 'misfits.' The result is a book that is complicated, offbeat, and very touching — just like Willow herself.— Entertainment Weekly

A novel set in Bakersfield is getting a lot of buzz lately.

We're talking movie buzz.

That may get some people to fire up the Kindle, or what not, and buy Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

But after the first few pages, it's the characters that will grab you and hold you through the final sentence.

OK, so this isn't my typical column fare, but I wanted to draw attention to the novel for its central theme: No matter how glaring our differences are on the outside, scratch the surface and we're pretty similar inside.

Considering the horrors we humans inflict one each other on a daily basis, I think that's a nugget worth keeping close to the heart.

Sloan's main character, Willow Chance, is an oddball. So odd, she doesn't have any friends, despite being perfectly nice and quite determined to find one.

But she's almost too smart for her own good. A genius, in fact. That makes people uncomfortable. And for all her smarts Willow doesn't really know how to navigate complex human relationships.

Willow is accused of cheating on a test, which sets a number of events in motion that are funny, sad, tragic and, ultimately hopeful.

I met Sloan at Russo's Bookstore back in December before it closed and she agreed to a Q&A. In keeping with the title of the book, I asked her seven questions.

Q 1: Why is the book set in Bakersfield?

A: I think that Bakersfield, like Willow, is both overlooked and misunderstood. It's not a flashy place. But it's got soul. At least I think so.

Bakersfield is a diverse community. There is more than meets the eye. I spent a few days in Bakersfield doing a commercial once and I was struck by the people. The place. The climate. The sky. I liked it. I thought it had stories and secrets and lots of hopes and dreams.

Q 2: Each of the characters has his or her own story of loss, some very tragic. What do you hope readers learn from those stories?

A: I think that how we handle loss defines us. It's the old saying about not knowing someone until you are in a foxhole. Watching how someone handles success or good news doesn't tell you as much about a person's character as seeing what happens when things fall apart. Everyone experiences loss. With young people that can mean losing a grandparent or a beloved pet. My characters face extreme loss. There is nothing more ground-shifting than for a child to lose a parent.

Q 3: OK, the school counselor, Dell -- how does his incompetence add to the story?

A: Dell is extreme. But all kinds of inept people somehow make their way into the system. I have nothing but respect for school counselors and I do not want to imply that they aren't doing their jobs. But Dell isn't. He wouldn't do his job if he worked in an ice cream store. He's not a motivated person. He's had a lot of disappointment and not a lot of encouragement. He's stuck.

Q 4: Considering Willow has such a loving, stable family, why was it important to the story for her to have been adopted?

A: I wanted to make her even more alone in the world. I also wanted her to be very different from her parents. I wanted her special abilities to be something she didn't share with them. They love her with all their hearts, but I wanted them to be from another world.

Steve Jobs was adopted. He had loving parents who found ways to encourage him to follow his interests. Not everyone is that fortunate.

Q 5: There has been some criticism of the ending in regards to money (trying not to give away too much here). Can you address why you ended it the way you did?

A: The end is based on reality. The situation, as described in the book, happened to someone and I know this because my husband served on a jury and the basis of the civil action had to do with something that occurred because of what happened to the person in a situation like Pattie. If you haven't read the book, that sounds completely incomprehensible. Sorry.

In the edition of the book published in the United Kingdom I answer questions at the end of the book in a short interview and I explain where the idea comes from and the fact of the matter is that someone in Pattie's situation pulled this off.

Q 6: There are so many ways that kids (and adults) can be labeled as outcasts or misfits, from their income status to the look of their nose. Why make Willow's high-octane brainpower the thing that sets her apart?

A: We tend to be a culture that easily recognizes and separates children when they have athletic talent. I wrote the movie "Angels in the Outfield," so I think it's clear that I love sports. But I think that, often, having intellectual talent isn't celebrated in the way throwing a fastball is. My kids went to a school for gifted children (Mirman in Los Angeles). I "borrowed" a lot from their experience there.

Q 7: The main character's name is not exactly common, Willow Chance. Any significance?

A: Yes. Will or Chance? What is determinative in life? Or are both things at play? I'm hoping to encourage discussion about community. Responsibility. Differences. I'm trying to ask how we move on from loss. I'm looking at how we are all so different, and yet all so similar.

(I couldn't resist and sneaked in one extra question:)

Q: What's next for Counting By 7s? A movie deal? Filmed in Bakersfield perhaps?

A: The book has been optioned for a movie. It would ABSOLUTELY be filmed in Bakersfield. And we are in talks right now with an established (known) actor for one of the parts. So stay tuned.— Lois Henry, The Bakersfield Californian

Publishers are releasing their spring titles, and I’m going through the annual task of putting aside the fall books that didn’t make it into this column in order to focus on the new list. In the process, however, I started reading a book I’d brought home for review months ago — one that got lost in the shuffle, but which turns out to be really good. So good that when I finished it, I promptly went back to Page 1 and read the whole thing a second time.

Counting by 7s revolves around 12-year-old Willow Chance, a self-described person of colour with adoptive parents “so white, they are almost blue. They don’t have circulation problems; they just don’t have much pigment.”

Roberta and Jimmy Chance tried for seven years to get pregnant, with no luck. When Willow entered their lives, the three of them formed a solid family — the child an exceptionally intelligent and curious one, the parents supportive and loving. Willow is obsessed with the number seven, has an interest in plants and in all things medical. They’re not the interests of the average 12-year-old, so it’s not surprising that Willow is something of an outsider.

At school, a perfect score on a standardized test draws raised eyebrows from school administration officials who suspect her of having cheated. As a result, she ends up in the office of school counsellor Dell Duke, a misfit and loser of gargantuan proportions who landed his job largely by accident but whose life, having crossed paths with Willow’s, now becomes inextricably entwined with hers. It is at Duke’s office that Willow meets Mai, a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl who becomes her best friend, and Quang-ha, Mai’s 15-year-old brother, who is on a path to ruination but, like Duke, is saved by getting to know Willow.

However, the real plot unfolds when Roberta and Jimmy are killed in a traffic accident and Willow, in the blink of an eye, is set adrift. What follows is an affecting tale about the impact any of us can have on another person’s life; author Holly Goldberg Sloan, tempering the plot with humour to offset the heartbreaking bits, not only creates vivid and believable characters, but gives Willow a wry, insightful voice that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.

'For someone grieving, moving forward is the challenge,' Willow, as narrator, tells us. 'Because after extreme loss, you want to go back.'

Fortunately, Mai convinces her mother, Pattie Nguyen, who runs a nail salon, to help Willow move forward. Together with Duke, the truculent Quang-ha and a remarkable taxi driver named Jairo Hernandez, they create a new family for Willow and, in the process, a new life for themselves.– Bernie Goedhart, The Montreal Gazette

­­­­Lively, tender, and satisfying.—The Horn Book, Starred Review

Immensely satisfying, heartfelt, and lyrical.... A truly compelling novel.... Sloan succeeds in skillfully combining the tenderness of young love, various distinct voices, and fast-paced action.—School Library Journal

­Strong dialogue and genuine emotional concern...make this a heart-warming novel.... Definitely a book worth the read.—VOYA

­­­­­­­­­[Delivers] an ultimately hopeful message about how friendships and families can form. Sure to be savored by fans of the first installment.—Kirkus Reviews

Destines collide in Sloan's thrilling sequel to her heart-wrenching I'll Be There. The fast-paced plot, complex story lines, and compelling characters grab readers from the get-go.—Booklist

Holly Goldberg Sloan's beautiful 2011 novel I'll Be There is one of the novels I often recommend, especially to folks who shy away from the young adult label. It's a magical little novel about a teen boy, Sam, and his young brother, Riddle, who spent their lives on the run with their abusive father until they meet Emily Bell and her family and everything changes.

(Note: This post contains spoilers for I'll Be There. You've been warned.)

Could something be an anchor if it wasn’t weighing you down?

Was it possible to be anchored to the sky?

Because that was how it felt to be with Emily: airborne. But with his feet on the ground.

Just Call My Name picks up shortly after the conclusion of I'll Be There. Sam and Riddle are safe under the protective arms of the Bell family. Emily and Sam are happy teenagers in love and sweet Riddle is thriving in his new home.

The happily ever after of I'll Be There is threatened by two forces, however: A new girl, Destiny, who blows into town, disrupting everything, and Sam and Riddle's terrifying father threatening everything they've achieved.

Destiny Verbeck might have looked like she could play the part of a baby wood nymph in a professional ice show, but she was tough.

She had to be.

Her mother had died of a drug overdose after being clean and sober for four years. Her one slipup ended it all.

After that, eleven-year-old Destiny, known up until that point as Amber, changed her name.

There's a lot to like about Just Call My Name, the pacing (the author's screenwriting background really shows), the smart use of third person omniscient (which I usually hate, but love in these books), for example.

However, what I found particularly compelling about this particular installment is the way Sam and Emily is tested in a believable, authentic way.

I'm not talking about the return of Sam’s mess of a father, but instead the plot-line about Destiny. Because we're able to be in all three characters' heads, as well as that of Bobby, who was infatuated with Emily in the previous book, Goldberg-Sloan gives readers the complete story.

He didn’t deserve someone like Emily. He didn’t deserve her good family and all their kindness. Why did they trust him when he didn’t even trust himself?

He was the son of a crook and a thief, and no amount of pretending was going to change that.

It wasn’t that Destiny Verbeck was trouble.

He was.

As a result, empathy ensues out in a situation where it's often easy to make a snap judgement.

I also think I'm a sucker for stories focusing on what happens after the "happy ever after."

Just Call My Name hits so many hopeful notes about family and the power of many types of love and manages to not be schmaltzy or hokey. I'm not quite sure how Goldberg-Sloan does it, because there are so many situations that would normally leave me rolling my eyes feel real and heartfelt. It's a testament to the the author's vivid writing style, for lack of a better term.

You know, I doubt the magic of I'll Be There needed a sequel, but I was thrilled to revisit the hopeful joy of these characters and their special world.– Sarah, cleareyesfullshelves.com

Content: To say that this is intense is an understatement. Violence, yes, but also psychological intensity. It's not for the faint of heart. It's in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

When we last left Sam and Riddle, their father was safely behind bars and they were living with Emily Bell and her family. A happily ever after, right?

Well, only Holly Goldberg Sloan would take a happily ever after and turn it into a nightmare.

First, there's the whole issue of security: Sam and Riddle (especially Riddle) were controlled and abused for so long that it's difficult for them to trust their own decisions, to get back into "real" life. They're suffering, and much of that is the residual affects from the years spent with their father. It doesn't help that Emily and her family (well, except for her brother, who's resentful) are super nice. Sam and Riddle don't know how to handle super nice.

And then their happily ever after starts unraveling. First, it's Destiny Vance [sic], one of those girls that just screams trouble. Sam just knows it: like calls to like, and he understand's Destiny's hard life. But, she won't be gotten rid of, and sticks to Sam and Emily (and Emily's former boyfriend, Bobby) like glue.

Which is a good thing, because their dad, Clarence, finds his way out of jail and is coming for the boys. And the Bells.

Few authors have the power to completely wreck me emotionally, and yet keep me turning pages at an ever more furious pace, dying to know: WHAT NEXT? Sloan is one of those authors. She captures the inner lives of all the characters, deftly balancing between Sam, Riddle, Emily, Jared, Destiny, Robb, and Clarence. You wouldn't think it would work, but Sloan pulls it off not only well, but spectacularly. It probably would have been even more powerful if I'd read the first book right before, but even though I didn't, I was able to immerse myself in this story, my heart simultaneously aching and pounding as I read about Sam and Riddle and their not-so-happily ever after.

Amazing.– Melissa Fox, The Book Nut

Holly Goldberg Sloan is an incredible writer. I enjoyed the first book in the series, but I liked this one even more. I appreciate the great depth of her characters. Often, coincidences are categorized as poor writing, but Sloan uses them intentionally and in a clever way—defying literary assumptions about quality writing. The book is quite suspenseful, and readers will have the urge to race through it to learn how the plot unravels. The way Sloan builds the plot details is very thoughtful and meticulous, and I found myself constantly reflecting about how intelligent she is. This sequel is well worth the read. It is a difficult one to put down! It reads like a very literary mystery and would be a great text for teachers to have in their classrooms. One aspect that I love about this series is it turns our concept of family on its head; it will teach readers about the power of a strong family unit—traditional or not.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: This would be a fantastic resource for teachers teaching plot, suspense, and foreshadowing. The way Sloan builds the events and details is admirable, and students would learn a lot from her design. While it is a sequel, I think this book could certainly stand alone. The ominous mood made my heart race! Check out more curricular connections here: Curricular Connections.

Discussion Questions: How does Sloan thoughtfully use coincidence to build her story?; What is Destiny’s role in the novel? How does Sam perceive her? Is he right? What does this tell us about Sam? Why does the author name her, “Destiny”?; How do the shifts in point-of-view add to your reading of the text?

Read This If You Loved: I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan, We Were Liars by e. lockhart, YA Suspense/Mystery

Recommended For: Lit Circles, Book Clubs, Classroom Library– Ricki Ginsberg, Unleashing Readers

With their father in jail and Sam and Riddle (from I’ll Be There, BCCB 6/11) all but adopted by Emily’s parents, things appear to be looking up for the boys. Soon, though, an outgoing, attractive girl named Destiny tries to cause trouble between Sam and Emily, but the real trouble is far worse than any of them imagine: Sam and Riddle’s dad, Clarence, has successfully escaped from prison and is coming to get revenge on the family that he thinks stole his boys. The narrative technique here consists of quick cuts between scenes featuring Sam, Emily, Destiny, Riddle, and Clarence, as well as Bobby, Emily’s former boyfriend, and Jared, her younger brother. In addition to relating the events, the characters reflect on their feelings about the other characters, establishing a pattern of suspicion and doubt about whom to trust. The quick-cut technique creates an edgy anticipation that comes to full, heart-stopping effect when Clarence kidnaps Emily. The chase that ensues is riveting not just because of what’s happening but also because readers never get to settle into a continuous or fixed perspective, which turns out to be the theme of the book, as new alliances have to form out of former antagonisms. Such insights are likely to occur only after readers close the book, though, since the emotional rush during reading is too intense to do anything but gobble up the words and breathe when and if you remember to. Sam, Riddle and Emily remain as endearing as they were in the first book, and, as a pleasant surprise, Jared, Bobby and Destiny all undergo redemption after shaky starts. If readers are willing to just accept that Sam and Emily are a committed couple with a troubled past, the story will stand on its own for those who haven’t read the prior book.– Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books