Review of the Day: Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
As a child I had absolutely no interest in reading books that contained any kind of trauma. I had a kind of sixth sense about it, so throughout the years I studiously avoided Bridge to Terabithia, Julie of the Wolves, and anything else that might possibly be considered serious in some way. This wasn’t because there were any deep-seated issues in my own life that needed addressing. I just happened to be privileged enough to have the choice not to think about serious issues if I didn’t want to (and I didn’t). My best friend had a very different view of things. They liked difficult books with tough issues that embraced the real world and all its ugly flaws. And no doubt, if Fighting Words had been around then, they would have recommended it to me. I would have refused, which is fine because we librarians truly believe that part of our job is to provide the right book for the right reader. Not every 12-year-old is going to be ready for the abuse and pain addressed in Bradley’s latest. But for those kids that want a book can be honest with them about the world, written at their age-level, with funny parts and a happy ending where things get better, this is that book. It ain’t easy but it’s there for you.
Della and Suki are inseparable. Sure Suki is a teenager and Della’s just ten, but they’ve taken care of one another for years, ever since their mom went to prison for cooking meth and her boyfriend, Clifton, took them in. Now that boyfriend’s going to be on trial and the girls are finding their new foster mother, Francine, is a huge improvement. Della’s always had a vague sense of how bad it was to live with Clifton but when Suki attempts suicide one night she realizes she had no idea what her older sister went through. Now Della and Suki have to get the help they need and learn to speak up, even when they’re not sure the world wants to listen to what they have to say.
Sometimes a book comes down to voice. If it’s written in the first person (and this one is) then you better believe in the main character deeply. You’re going to have to identify with them, sympathize with them, and understand them, even when they make stupid mistakes (especially then!). Della has a personality that shines through from page one. It’s a killer first page for a novel, by the way. If you want to kick off a book on a high note, begin it with a fourth grader showing off her new ampersand tattoo (a real one). Right away, you want to know more about this kid. “I got a big mouth. That’s a good thing. It’s excellent.” I kept trying to figure out what she reminded me of. Then it finally struck me. There was something about her that reminded me of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Totally different personality, but the same spark that keeps you reading. I mean, if I can read a book where the main character (who is ten) can deadpan a line like, “Uh-huh. Because I fully believe everything all these government people tell me,” I’m going to want more of it. Even when it gets tough. Even when it’s touching on issues that I never ever want to encounter in my books to this day. It’s like Della takes your hand and couches all the bad parts in such a way where you feel kind of protected from them because she’s protected (except for one very bad time when she isn’t).
I was in a meeting a month or so ago, discussing the current crop of novels for 9-12 year olds. In the course of things a co-worker held up a book and mentioned that it had some references to child abuse. Nothing overt or particularly descriptive, but the implications were necessary for the plot. Hearing her say this, I glanced over at my copy of Fighting Words. It got me thinking about the words the author chose to use to describe the sexual abuse of the characters. A person could teach an entire college course on this book’s relationship to the English language. Its own title is no coincidence. Thematically, there is a consistency to this book, not simply in its subject matter and plot, but also in how it is constructed as a novel, that demands closer examination. From the book’s second page, Della tells you that there are words she isn’t supposed to use. But rather than excise them altogether, she changes them. This is in keeping with the book’s examination of what you should, should not, can, and cannot say when you are an abused child. Getting back to what my co-worker said about that other novel, this one is far more explicit in terms of the abuse its main character suffers. It’s not blatantly graphic, but you see far more than you’d expect in a book written for older kids. It is what the author will be blamed for, ultimately, but it is also honest when it points at the world and says, “This happens. It’s awful. Acknowledge this fact.”
Is it a perfect work? Of course not! What is? Honestly, if you’re writing content that is this difficult for kids then you’re going to have to throw your readers a couple bones. Take the foster mother Francine, who wavers on the edge of being too good to be true. She’s got that classic grumpy-adult-with-a-heart-of-gold feel to her, and the sheer amount of time and effort she spends going to bat for Della and Suki can verge on the unbelievable. Still and all, a person has to believe that there are Francines out there in the world. Without her this book would have gone from difficult to intolerable. So I’ll allow for the occasional Francine, sure. Then there are the characters ages. I’m sure there was a lot of internal discussion at the publisher as to whether or not to age up Della. She’s ten in the fourth-grade in a book with issues that are going to get it shelved in middle school and/or YA sections in some parts of the country. Shouldn’t she be twelve? I respect Bradley for keeping Della young, even when she must have been urged to make her older. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t other 10-year-olds out there that have had to grow up early. Stands to reason.
The truth? There are going to be a lot of adults out there who hate this book. Some will simply want it removed from the children’s section and placed in the YA section. I once worked in a library where that very request was leveled at the female genital mutilation novel No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia. As a parent, I sympathize, but there’s a moment in this book where Della is told that there are families out there where the kids have never experienced hunger or pain or poverty and it blows her mind. This is a middle grade novel about child sexual abuse. It is not an easy book, and with that subject matter you wouldn’t want it to be. And so this book will be banned somewhere because it dares to show a horrible moment being horrible. You want to protect your children from the truly horrible things in this world? That’s completely understandable, but some kids simply don’t have that luxury. They want to know they’re not alone, while other kids want to understand what other children out there are dealing with. Yes, this is a rough book but it’s also funny and loving and brave. It has the capability to build compassion in the hearts of the kids that don’t want to read books about middle class kids in happy little families all the time. You are free to dislike this book, but don’t take it away from the children who need it. After all, you may never even know who they are.
On shelves August 11th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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