Title: Fighting Words
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Genre: Middle Grade Realistic Fiction
Number of Pages: 272
Trigger Warning: This book contains themes of sexual assault and suicide.
When she’s ten, Della and her older sister Suki are removed from the custody of their mother’s boyfriend and placed in a foster home. Their foster mother outright says she only takes kids in for the money and neither Suki nor Della feels supported in their new environment.
Before the left the boyfriend’s house, he tried to rape Della and she’s horrified when she realizes that Suki had been his victim for years. Then Suki tries to kill herself and Della tries to figure out how to repair her broken family; or at the very least, manage to save herself.
Fighting Words is enlightening and oftentimes heart-wrenching, but it’s not as relentlessly grim and depressing as it sounds. Della’s narrative voice is dynamic and oddly charming, and Bradley does a great job getting into the head of a pre-teen girl with emotional problems.
She has an admittedly difficult personality at times and clashes with classmates and adults, and it reminded me that nobody knows what another person is going through. We might be tempted to react with impulsive harshness towards kids like Della but most people have a reason for being the way they are.
I also really loved the relationship between Della and Suki in all its fallibility. It felt raw and authentic, and I felt a great deal of compassion for both characters. There’s a strong theme of consent throughout the book and Della struggles to stand up for herself and her female classmates against a boy who pinches their backs feeling for bra straps.
The bully, Trevor, is not nearly as odious as their mother’s boyfriend Cliffton, but the book portrays how his behavior is problematic (to say the least) and a bad indicator of what kind of man he might grow up to be. I also appreciated that it was his mom who was enabling him and pulling the ‘boys will be boys’ shit instead of his dad.
I felt like the big scene where all the girls speak up against Trevor in class was a little heavy-handed, but I also get that it’s a middle grade book and the author might feel like she needs to hit the themes a little harder.
Overall, I loved this book and the way it managed to go beyond typical abuse narratives and really makes you connect with the characters. The relationships and the dialogue are realistic, and I think this is an important read for older kids of both genders.