November 04, 2013

Counting Back from Nine

by Valerie Sherrard
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
198 pp.
Ages 14+
March, 2013

In Valerie Sherrard's "Acknowledgements" for Counting Back from Nine, she tells of originally writing the book in prose before proposing a rewrite in free verse to her editor, Christie Harkin, at Fitzhenry & Whiteside.  An astute choice, I believe, as Counting Back from Nine has the depth and fluidity and Valerie Sherrard has the fine touch that can create a story in which not all has to be written out for the reader.  Novels in free verse are sophisticated writing and appropriate for stories that surge beyond the page and into the hearts of readers, as does Counting Back from Nine. It's not surprising that Counting Back from Nine has been nominated for a 2013 Governor General Literary Award for Children's Text and for a Red Maple award.

Lauren Oliver has been secretly seeing her best friend's ex-boyfriend, Scott, since they broke up.  When she finally admits it to Nina, she is promptly and emphatically told, "I hate you."  And so with telling her parents about this situation, and getting a reassuring hug from her dad, Lauren acknowledges that the countdown from 9 has begun. 

Dealing with all her friends unfriending her, and Scott being quasi-attentive, Lauren is surprised to find herself invited to join a classmate, Christine Oakley, and her friend, Dee, at lunch and then elsewhere.  She realizes how critical their friendship is to her, especially when her father is involved in a car accident and, though he shows great positivity in vowing to spend more time with family (step 8), he dies. 

While recalling bright sparks of memories of her father, all steps in her countdown, Lauren works to resolve the discrepancy in the father she recalls with affection and the father who was apparently having an affair with the woman passenger in the car.
"It is the strangest feeling
when joy and sorrow both
have claws on your heart." (pg. 58)
Soon enough, the readers will recognize that the countdown of sections from 9 to 8 and so on are tracking the progress of Lauren's grief for the loss of her father, his love, and her family (which is reconfiguring itself), and forgiveness for his infidelity and weaknesses.  While resolving these issues for herself, Lauren also finds the means to resolve her tenuous relationships with Scott, Nina and other friends.

Cloud nine is a very nice place to be but the fall can be hard.  Lauren's family, friendships and clandestine relationship with Scott put her on that cloud but clouds are not solid ground and, as each bubble of joy bursts, Lauren falls closer to reality.  Valerie Sherrard exemplifies that contemplative descent through streaming verse, never allowing Lauren to hit bottom but instead helping her land softly.  Young readers of Counting Back from Nine, including those participating in the 2014 Red Maple reading program in which the book is nominated, will appreciate the gentle treatment for some harsh life lessons.

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