Fighting Words


A candid and fierce middle grade novel about sisterhood and sexual abuse, by Newbery Honor winner and #1 New York Times best seller Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten-tear-old Della has always had her older sister, Suki: When their mom went to prison, Della had Suki. When their mom's boyfriend took them in, Della had Suki. When that same boyfriend did something so awful they had to run fast, Della had Suki. Suki is Della's own wolf--her protector. But who has been protecting Suki? Della might get told off for swearing at school, but she has always known how to keep quiet where it counts. Then Suki tries to kill herself, and Della's world turns so far upside down, it feels like it's shaking her by the ankles. Maybe she's been quiet about the wrong things. Maybe it's time to be loud.

In this powerful novel that explodes the stigma around child sexual abuse and leavens an intense tale with compassion and humor, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells a story about two sisters, linked by love and trauma, who must find their own voices before they can find their way back to each other.---from the publisher

256 pages                        978-1984815682                       Ages 10 and up

Keywords:  sisters, family, sisterhood, sexual abuse, love, trauma, courage, self acceptance, self esteem, self respect, healing, resilience, mental health, foster family, trust, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old, 14 year old


“‘Til your world burns and crashes

‘Til you’re at the end, the end of your rope

‘Til you’re standing in my shoes, I don’t wanna hear nothing from you

From you, from you, ‘cause you don’t know

‘Til it happens to you, you don’t know how I feel”

-- Lady Gaga (2015)

“If you’ve been hurt, tell someone. Tell your parents if you can, or your teacher, or your doctor, or any other adult you trust. If that person doesn’t help you, tell someone else. Keep talking until you get the help you need.”

-- from the Author’s Note

FIGHTING WORDS is groundbreaking contemporary fiction for upper elementary and middle school readers. It’s an essential introduction to the #MeToo movement.

Ten year-old Della and her big sister Suki have ended up in foster care.

First, their mother accidentally ignited a motel room while cooking up meth. Then their mother was arrested, and the two girls were picked up at the police station by their mother’s boyfriend.

With their mother permanently committed to a mental institution, the boyfriend sexually assaulted Della. Her older sister stumbled upon them and used a cell phone to take and email a photo that shows what he was doing to Della. The boyfriend was arrested and is awaiting trial.

The question is, what had the boyfriend done to the older sister, Suki?

“I mean, I’d rather Suki was fine. But she wasn’t".

“You’re like a pressure cooker,’ Francine said, when the caseworker left, ‘and the water’s getting hot.’

Suki said, ‘What the snow’s a pressure cooker?’

‘A thing my mamaw used to have,’ Francine said. ‘For canning vegetables from her garden. It’s a pot you put water in and seal tight shut before you heat it up. The water boils into steam and makes pressure.

Thing is,’ Francine said, ‘pressure cookers have this little valve on top. Rattles around, keeps the pressure from building up too high inside the pot. If the valve isn’t working right, pressure cookers can be dangerous. They can turn into bombs. They explode.’”

Della and Suki are in desperate need of their own pressure relief valves.

As if Della hasn’t endured enough already, there is more trouble: Living in foster care at Francine’s house; attending a new school; awaiting the boyfriend’s trial; and with Suki in tatters; Della is sexually harassed by a boy in her class who goes around pinching the female classmates in the back--where their bra straps would be--and then calling them babies for not yet wearing bras.

Della is an alternately fierce and fragile character dealing with pain, insecurity, and loss. She’ll come to learn that speaking up clearly and insistently, until she’s really heard, is more effective than are explicatives, fists, or harming oneself.

Francine is an interesting and pivotal character in Della’s life. Della has never met her father. She’s been criminally neglected by her mother. After having been sexually assaulted by the boyfriend, Della is wary of Francine, a stranger with whom she is suddenly living and being cared for.

Francine is close-mouthed about her previous experiences as a foster parent, but she makes it clear that she’s seen and heard it all. She turns out to be the rock that Della needs to survive and move forward.

In her Note, the author cites a horrifying statistic attributed to the federal DOJ and CDC: One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach the age of eighteen. I hope and pray that young readers read this fact. It means that in every classroom across America there are likely several kids who are victims. It means it can happen to any kid. This is a national crisis that dwarfs so many other issues we worry about and protest against.

Boys snapping girls’ bra straps, or pinching their backs as is the case here, could serve as a gateway behavior to even more insidious sexual abuse and assault. It’s essential that young people don’t tolerate any such violations of their bodies but, instead, support one another and (thanks, Laurie Halse Anderson) SPEAK.

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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