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Willow lives an orderly life with her adoptive parents until their unexpected death forces her out of her well-worn routine of gardening, researching, and counting by sevens. As she grieves for her parents, Willow finds herself nurtured by an unlikely group of people – the Vietnamese-American Nguyen family, her lazy school counselor, and a local taxi driver. Intensely curious and analytical, Willow excels at academics. But no matter how her vast vocabulary she is still emotionally an 11 year old and not equipped to handle her grief alone. As the story progresses Willow’s world expands from just her parents and plants to a community of diverse people who support one another.
Sloan has crafted a unique story with a memorable heroine and a multicultural cast of characters. Willow matter-of-factly calls herself a “person of color,” but she never elaborates on this beyond stating that her skin is dark and her hair is a mess of curls. Cultural customs, such as lucky colors and foods, are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative. Socio-economic status is addressed as Willow’s comfortable former life is contrasted with her new “temporary” life with the Nguyen family, first in a converted garage and later in a small apartment. There are frequent references to locations that firmly ground the story in contemporary Bakersfield, California. The chapters alternate between Willow’s first person narrative and third person observations that flesh out the supporting characters and propel the plot forward. Willow’s voice is pragmatic, yet there is a poetic sensibility that enriches the story. The short chapters keep this introspective book moving at a rolling pace that allows for thought, but never drags. This is an intriguing combination that will captivate readers.
*Use this for a book club and discuss the use of labels. Talk about the labels that Dell creates for his students. What other labels have you encountered at school, at home, with friends?
*Check out Nova Ren Suma‘s interview with Sloan on the blog, Distraction no. 99.
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RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+