4 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Well-written, middle-school-appropriate story about a genius outcast/orphan who has to deal with the grief of losing her beloved adoptive parents and struggles to find a new home situation. There’s a lovable cast of side characters (the underachieving school counselor, the dictator-like Vietnamese matron, etc), a nice progression from super sad (the parents die in the first opening scene) to happy equilibrium/resolution, and lots of fun/quirky moments in-between. I’m not a big fan of the genius-protagonist thing, but this was fairly well-conceived and mostly believable.
We start with the most depressing part of the book, which is finding out that, after a nice day of ice cream and finally making a couple of new friends, Willow finds out that there’s been an accident, and that both of her adopted parents have passed away.
Then we jump to two months ago and find out just who these people are, why we should be emotionally invested, etc
Willow Chance is a 12-year-old girl who has led a mostly happy life being the only adopted child of Roberta and Jimmy Chance. She tested as “highly gifted” several years back, but has been a mediocre student who has focused more on her various interests (skin diseases, counting by 7s, whatever else catches her interest). One day, she’s given a standardized test and does… extraordinarily well, so well that she’s the only perfect score in the entire state, and her teachers and principal are positive she’s cheated. After being confronted by the principal, she’s sent to a district counselor (Dell Duke), who quickly figures out that Willow isn’t a cheater, but a genius.
The exact set-up actually matters a little less than each of the individual characters (who all become part of Willow’s eventual make-shift family) that she encounters along the way: from Jairo, a taxi driver who believes Willow is his good-luck charm to Dell whose life is gradually transformed by Willow (the first time he’s cared about a student of doing his job well). Throughout the novel, we watch Willow deal with the grief of her parents’ passing, and see the mostly realistic ways in which those around her learn to care and provide for her. It’s a nice coming-of-age story with a very believable protagonist.