Words can’t describe how much I love this book. Based on how much I loved Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, I expected to like Fighting Words. But I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. Especially since it tackles difficult topics like sexual abuse, suicide, and addiction.
But here’s the thing. Bradley does it so well. Without shying away from their horrible situation, Bradley tells the story of 10-year-old Bella and her older sister, Suki, with compassion and just the right amount of description. Middle grade readers will understand what’s happening without having to endure too many details.
Through Della’s compelling and believable voice (she replaces the swear words that are part of her vocabulary because she’s heard them so often with “snow”), we learn that Della and Suki’s mom is incarcerated for blowing up a motel room cooking meth. Afterwards, the sisters went to live with her horrible boyfriend, Clifton. They escaped when Suki caught Clifton assaulting Della for the first time, something he’d been doing to Suki for years without Della knowing.
To make this backstory easier to handle, we meet Della and Suki once they’ve gone to live with their foster mom, Francine, who’s just the right balance between stern and sweet. Della goes to 4th grade at a new school–something she really doesn’t like–and makes a great friend in Navaeh, who invites Della for her first sleepover and even gets her swimming at their after school program.
At first, I didn’t think Fighting Words was for everyone. I changed my mind when Della’s therapist tells Della that what happened to her and Suki is common. In her words, “You’re probably not the only kid it’s happened to in your class… It happens that often. And it happens to both boys and girls.” With the help of her therapist, Della also stands up to the bully in her class delivering an important message about consent in the process.
In the author note, Bradley provides resources and tells readers that she was sexually abused as a child. Again in her words, “It was hard and bad and it affected my life in lots of difficult ways. I didn’t tell anyone for a very long time… Eventually I found my words. I wrote this book hoping it would help readers find theirs.”