Fighting words by kimberly brubaker bradley (Dial books 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
Fighting Words is the newest middle grade novel by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, best known for her Newbery Honor-winning novel The War That Saved My Life. I’ve always attested that its sequel, The War I Finally Won, is even better, but Fighting Words is arguably her best novel by far.
Delicious Nevaeh Roberts, or Della, is all I could ever ask for in a protagonist: tough and street smart, empathetic and kind, proud of her loud mouth and lobbed curses. She’s the kind of girl who’ll draw a mustache and devil horns on a princess, then defend her bullied friend. Della and her sixteen year old sister, Suki, have had to be tough after years of living with their mother’s boyfriend, Clifton, who finally did something so bad they had to get out quick. With their mother in jail states away, the two must navigate foster care while memories of Clifton continue to haunt them both. Della continually looks to Suki as her protector, but when Suki attempts suicide, Della has a terrible, earth-shattering revelation: who’s protecting Suki?
Bradley manages an incredible feat: demonstrating how more common, everyday examples of harassment are still harmful and traumatic, even when juxtaposed with full-on sexual abuse. “Boys will be boys,” as the saying goes — that is to say, boys will harass girls. Fighting Words is a stark reminder of the lessons boys need to be taught about abuse and consent. (That is not to say, of course, that males are the only ones responsible for sexual harassment or assault, or that females are the only victims.) What’s more, Della’s experience demonstrates the power of speaking up and telling the truth–even when it’s a truth that’s burdened the person she holds most dear.
After accepting the extent of Suki’s trauma, Della grapples with overwhelming guilt. Della was raised by Suki long before their mother had a psychotic break due to meth addiction. Della sought out Suki’s protective presence as they endured years with Clifton, and it was Suki who got Della out when Clifton tried to rape her. Della isn’t a fan of Francine, their new foster mother, either. When Francine admits that she keeps foster kids for the money, Della tells the readers that “I didn’t mind her saying that. I liked to know where we stood” (18).
Meanwhile,Suki continually puts Della first, by buying Della purple sneakers and forgoing clothes for herself and working at a grocery store to save money for them both. It’s telling that Della declares that Suki’s superpower is that she “can make herself invisible” (25). Della doesn’t initially recognize Suki’s struggles despite the signs, such as her screaming every night in her sleep. Eventually Suki explodes about having to take care of Della since she was six. “‘When is somebody going to take care of me?’” (149)
Accepting her sister’s pain–moreover, accepting that she hadn’t been there for her sister all those years–is the greatest burden Della has ever had to bear. “I’d never thought about it as worse for Suki than me. Suki was so strong” (129). Thankfully, more than one adult consoles Della about her guilt and reassures her that none of it was her fault. I cannot stress how grateful I was that adults patiently remind her of this truth–that she is not to blame for her sister’s suffering–several times over. Because it is a truth worth repeating. It’s bad enough that Suki had to sacrifice her childhood and well-being for Della, but it’s just as egregious for her younger sister to feel responsible for it.
One of the beauties of Fighting Words, aside from tackling a subject largely avoided in middle grade fiction, is how it addresses the power of speaking up. Della goes so far as to defend cursing at a teacher over a family tree assignment. Della explains that had she not cursed, then she wouldn’t have been called to the principal’s office to explain the teacher’s insensitivity. “See? It’s useful, having a big mouth” (11). It’s essential to teach children that certain words hold more power, and when we really need to say them–say, in the face of injustice–we should put them to good use. While Della is never ashamed of speaking her mind, she was nonetheless taught to keep silent about certain issues, like her mother cooking meth or the fact that Clifton was not her or Suki’s real father. “I’ve learned that some things are almost impossible to talk about because they’re things no one wants to know” (39). Della embodies the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous saying:“the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
There is no easy way to address sexual abuse, especially when it involves children. Fighting Words does it with much needed levity and grace. Children need to learn that they’re not alone in their struggles. Children need to learn that it’s perfectly well and good to have a loud mouth. And you know what? Adults should remember it, too.