Thursday, March 4, 2021


This middle grade novel is well deserving of the awards it has received so far this year, including Golden Kite and Newbury honors. A bridge building book, this one will lead to discussions about difficult subjects. Parents will want to read it before and with their daughters and their sons.

 FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020.

10 year old Della is nearly killed when the meth her mom and her boyfriend are cooking in the bathroom of a sleazy motel blows up. Her mom is incarcerated and another of her mom’s boyfriends takes custody of Della and her older sister Suki. He says he is the girls’ father.  Nobody bothers to check. Both girls 
suffer failures of a system designed to protect them but not getting the job done.

This could have been a hard hitting YA told from Suki’s point of view. The author chose, and I think rightly so, to make Della the main character and show how and where gender disrespect and sex abuse can be called out at an age earlier than most adults would think.

Victimized by the boyfriend claiming to be the girls’ dad, Suki was Della’s protector. Always. Through Suki’s actions, the girls escape the fake father and are placed with Francine, a tough as nails foster mom. She has been down a few rough roads herself and knows how to call things what they are. She tells both girls about their experiences, “It is not your fault.” and “You need to have a childhood. I am here to take care of you.” And most importantly, “You can be kids.”

It’s a triumph when Della reacts to bra strap snapping bully Trevor by standing up to him and saying, “Never touch me or any girl in this class without permission ever again.” The 4th grade class is shocked into silence. Instead of getting herself in trouble by calling Trevor bad names or trying to get even other ways which always ended in getting Della in trouble—thanks to lots of therapy here—Della emboldens other girls to stand up and say, “He did this to me, too.” Adults realize they had not been paying attention. They had missed this problem. At the same time, Della feels a flicker of empathy for Trevor. What made him the way he is?

The book ends before the girls face the offending pseudo dad in court, but the reader is left with hope that the girls have begun to heal.

Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley creates memorable characters strong enough to overcome unbelievable odds and convince readers that life can be hard but kids can be stronger.  Like Fighting Words, her novel The War That Saved My Life also won a Newbery honor. Both novels deserve a thorough reading by adults who care what happens in the lives of the children around them. For helpful resources see the author’s web as well as her Author’s Note in Fighting Words.


Hillview School Library