Book Review: Fighting Words

I will say it again. (I said it on social media already.) And again and again and again. Holy Snow. 

I love books. I enjoy most books. I read fun books, mostly, with some element of depth to them, but let’s call a spade a spade. They’re mostly about entertainment and empathy. But this book. Holy snow. 

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a powerful, heart-wrenching work about more than its premise, which is weighty and deserving in itself. Although statistics vary, data shows 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys fall victim to sexual abuse at some point in their childhood. Yet, I cannot think of a single middle grades book (other than this one) that deals with the topic at all, let alone as tactically and expertly as Bradley’s Newbery Honor Book. 

Della informs you that she’s ten from the start of Fighting Words, the story she narrates. She begins with the simple facts and builds to the difficult narratives and sub-narratives. From the beginning of Della’s account, she and her older sister Suki find themselves in foster care. Their mother, whom Della barely remembers except for one explosive incident (literally), is an incarcerated meth addict. The man with whom they were left at her incarceration, well, that’s where some of the difficulty resides. It was his inappropriate assault of Della that led to their removal from his care. The scene gets told, once Della is ready to tell it, leaving the reader with a sense of horror and revulsion without feeling the scene crossed a literary line for the target audience. How can a scene be appropriately inappropriate? I don’t know. But I read one in this book.

The quality of the writing and the voice is worthy of the topic here. It would have to be to have the audacity to attempt to deal with sexual abuse, abandonment, and the aftermath. Importantly, Bradley writes from experience, and confesses to such in the author’s note. But this is not a book about trauma; it’s a book about healing. 

Like any healing process, Della and Suki do not have a clear and easy path to follow. Della has trouble with a boy named Trevor at school. She pushes people away with her use of four letter words (which, in the book, she substitutes for snow, snowman, snowflake, etc.) both deftly and intelligently. Suki is the only person Della could rely on to take care of her. But Suki has had to parent Della since she was herself six. Now that they’re in foster care, and preparing for court with their abuser, there are plenty of proficient adults to care for Della. And for Suki, too. But Suki and Della don’t always know how to let them or how to trust them.

The characters grow in themselves as the narrative progresses. Della tells you the hard parts. Even the hardest part. (Read with tissue nearby. She’ll warn you it’s coming.) And show you their courage along the way.

There are multiple characters with “bad stories” in this book. Some of which you hear, some of which you don’t. (Even Della and Suki shy away from the explicit and ugly details of everything– making it both tasteful and challenging for a middle grade audience, yet better to be read with someone to talk to through it.) Some of those bad stories relate to poverty, some to abuse, some to mental health. What Bradley makes clear is each character has a story whether they tell it or not.

Fighting Words embodies its title. This is Della. Telling you her story. In her words. With courage. With bravery. With love. With fight. You may not hear many ten-year-olds tell you about their abusive experiences. I pray you don’t (not because they won’t tell you but because they don’t have them to tell). Listen to her voice. It may inspire you to use your own.

You’ve gotta read this book. It’s the kind of book I live for because it’s not just literature. It’s art. 

Rating: 5/5
Target: 6th grade and up for general audience, younger for children of abuse

Parents, please read this book with your child. Do not send them off to read this and struggle through its content on their own. Better yet, you read it first. Then read it a second time with them. There’s nothing easy about it. But, much like parenting itself, it’s valuable and important. No one said it would be easy. For snowflake’s sake. 

Readers, don’t scoff at the target audience. This book is for older readers as much as it is for middle grade readers. Snow. I could use this in a college course curriculum. It’s that well done.

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The Days of Our Pandemic: episode z

a pinkyandthebrainhomage by KZ Rochelle (of course)

Outside the lavender home with blue violet trim on Wonky Way Lane, a pair of peregrine falcons chased each other out of a rabbit den, squawking and combating mid-flight. Prior peoples may have seen a harbinger herein, but those who roamed the land had long since considered ancient omens.

In front of the bathroom mirror in said Wonky Way Lane home, the following scene took place. Observe, Reader, from your safe distance on the far side of the screen lest you spiral into what you discover…

“What shall we do today, Z?” K asked the figure in the mirror.

“The same thing we do every day, K,” Z responded. “Escape the world enclosed by these four walls.”

Before K could agree with the brilliance of such an idea, cackling emanated from the walls and reflected off the toothpaste-coated tile floors. 

“Rochelle? Rochelle? Stop that!” K hit the wall with the outside of her fist. 

The cackling continued.

“RO-Chelle!” K pounded. 

The cackling ceased but K already felt regret blooming in the form of a bruise on her wrist.

“Damn you, Rochelle.” K returned to Z’s fresh face in the mirror. She coated it with concealer. “Where were we, Z?”

“Where we always are, K. Escape.”

“Of course, Z. You’re rather a smart one, aren’t you?”

“Always dapper, yes,” Z said, petting down any lingering wrinkles on her sweater.

“Oh, you’re so witty. Smart. Dapper. Good one, Z.” K threw her head back in a chortle, knocking the back of her head on the hospital white wall behind her. “Ouch.” She rubbed the point of impact. 

“Enough of this nonsense,” said Z. 

K snapped to attention. But thought about the back of her head. And wondered if her thoughts came from that spot on the back of her head that had taken a beating. And if her thoughts came from that spot on the back of her head that had taken a beating and now that part of the back of her head had been hit by the wall….wait, no….had hit the wall, then perhaps her thoughts could radiate out faster. Like the pain itself. Throbbing its way from a single point like a ripple. Or, perhaps she’d cracked the spot that held her thoughts and the thoughts that came from that spot on the back of her head would fall into an abyss so dark and lonely they’d never be found again. Or maybe her thoughts…

“K! Listen to me!”

“Yes, Z.”

“We must find our way out of this place. We have been in here for a year. Isolated. Quarantined. Our lives placed on pause while the world outside swims through a COVID-infested ooze.”

“Oooh. Ooze. Is it like slime? I like slime, Z. Maybe we could go swimming too?”

“Yes! But no. Not in the ooze. But we need to get out and into the world again.”

“How will we do that Z?”

Z motioned K with a solitary finger. She beckoned her closer. Closer. Closer to the mirror where Z resided. Until BAM! K knocked her skull against the glass.

“Ouch. That hurt.”

Z rolled her eyes. This happened every morning. K hit her head from behind. She hit her head from the front. They were lucky when she didn’t end up lethargic for the day in consequence, but, still, the continual impact had its effect.

“As I was saying!” declared Z with stentorian posture and a downward struck fist. 

K rubbed her forehead. And her backhead. 

“Yeah, Z. As you were saying.”

“We must escape the confines of these four walls again today the same way we do every day.”

“Right-o, Z! Same way we do every day.” K nodded her head enthusiastically. Then threw up. 

“You’ll have to clean that up before we escape,” said Z evaluating her cuticles. 

They were out of Clorox and bleach and dishwashing soap and detergent and vinegar, so while K cleaned up her mess with a dustpan and some febreeze, Z turned the other way to bake honey banana cupcakes. Again. They always had bananas to go on.

Will K and Z escape their four walls before they go bananas? Find out next time in The Days of our Pandemic….

Click here to read the next installment