Premise: One school week in the lives of online Scrabble friends Charlotte and Ben are eventful. Charlotte’s begins with being called out of class with the news that her dad is in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Meanwhile, Ben’s parents announce their divorce. Though the two kids do not attend the same school (they don’t even live in the same state), they both have to learn what friendship means in the midst of the most difficult challenges of their lives.
Rating: 3/5 Target: 3-7 grade
Title: The statement, “You go first” is repeated several times throughout the novel and has to do with taking risks and being vulnerable in relationships and other settings.
Main Character(s): 6th graders Charlotte (she/her) and Ben (he/him)
Motifs (not exhaustive): friendship, isolation, change, trauma, bullying, scrabble, board games, nerds, social group, empathy, public speaking, student council, regret
Great for…* (readers): who are experiencing the shifting sands of friendships during tweenagerdom or isolated socially.
Great for…* (teachers): structure! This is essentially two novels that parallel one another than then intersect. There’s not much in here that requires guidance for young readers, so it could be a great Lit Circle or independent reading book.
Parental Warning(s): None.
Interact: What’s your favorite board game (or online game played by more than one person)?
Premise: Pippa Park loves basketball and her friends, but her family wants her to excel in school. When Pippa’s skills earn her a place at an elite, private school, her family jumps at the chance to send her as a scholarship student. The kids at Pippa’s new school are all wealthy, and Pippa’s family is working class. She’s reminded she does not belong even by the food she brings to lunch (Korean delights). So Pippa plans to make a new version of herself, one that will impress the private school kids and hide where she comes from. But how long can she fake a front?
Rating: 3/5 Target: 4-7
Title: Of course there’s a basketball assumption here, but Pippa’s basketball skills have very little to do with the plot. They get her into the school, but that’s about it. Raising her game has more to do with her sense of acceptance for who she is — and possibly her math grades.
Main Character(s): Pippa, 7th-grader (she/her)
Motifs (not exhaustive): acceptance, belonging, authenticity, friendship, cliques, passions, family, social status, economic status, sacrifice, bullying, Korean culture
Great for…* (readers): who are drawn into the drama of being popular or just struggling to accept themselves in middle school. (The fact that the cool kids are called the Royals rings very Mean Girls to me.) The basketball could be used to draw a non-reader athlete in as it does start the book, but the sports won’t hold their attention as they fade into the background pretty quickly.
Great for…* (teachers): Lit Circles — I wouldn’t recommend this as a core novel, but as free reading and even guided reading groups absolutely. The publisher specializes in scaffolding such things with resources.
Parental Warning(s): None.
Interact: Food plays a repetitive role in Pippa’s narrative. Pick a question: (a) which food from the book do you want to eat? (b) what’s your favorite thing to eat? (c) Why is the significance of food, and specifically Korean foods, in this book?
Premise: Division erupts in Jude’s hometown in Syria, causing her brother to side and react differently than her father and sending Jude and her mother to live with family in Ohio. Jude needs courage to leave Syria and begin a life in the U.S. but she also needs courage to face a culture that sees her as someone who does not belong, as someone “middle eastern,” and figure out what home really means when everything is different than it was before.
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4-7
Title: Jude must improve her English skills while living as a refugee in the United States, so the title can be taken literally, but there’s much more to the concept of home than a word.
Main Character(s): Jude, 12 y/o (she/her)
Motifs (not exhaustive): culture, hope, home, bravery/courage, war, change, terrorism, war, dislocation/refugees, language, middle eastern/syria, anti-refugee behavior, EMPATHY
Great for…* (readers): who appreciate deep thinking OR who are intimidated by the text on a page (as this book is written in verse).
Great for…* (teachers): Symbolism and discussion, discussion, discussion. There is so much in this book that lends itself to deeper meaning than just the words on the page (thereby also playing into the motif of language/communication). The book can be used to challenge preconceived notions and assumptions, so, again: discussion!
Parental Warning(s): Anti-refugee behaviors and words but no cursing
Interact: Who or what means home for you? (Consider sights, scents, textures, etc.)
Premise: 12 y/o Will Levine just wants to be left alone with his four turtles. He doesn’t want to be called Turtle Boy by the kids at school. He doesn’t want to have surgery on his jaw. He doesn’t want new friends and he doesn’t want his one friendship to change. When Will must complete community service hours in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, though, his world begins to shift. Will hates hospitals but is assigned to visit a terminally ill teenager with a bucket list he needs help completing. Can a boy who prefers a habitat inside his shell venture beyond it without destroying himself in the process?
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4-9
Title: The title has multiple meanings. The kids at school taunt Will with the name “Turtle Boy” because of the way he looks, but he is also interested in turtles. However, the significance of the title really rests in Will’s propensity to shelter himself from discomfort — like a turtle in a shell.
Great for…* (readers): who are shy, bullied, anxious, or frightened. Many male characters make this a good read for boys while still being appealing to girls, too.
Great for…* (teachers): There’s a bucket list project, a community service project, and a cross-curriculum science/nature project waiting to happen with this book. Plenty to explore there, but the literary merit is mainly in character development, round/flat, dynamic/static, etc.
Parental Warning(s): For children who have experienced death of a parent/friend, this book could bring up memories.
Interact: Will’s favorite animal is, of course, the turtle. He does have a room full of terrariums and turtles, after all. Will says they are not pets, but, for the sake of this activity, let’s talk pets. What kind of pet did/do you want as a kid? Why? And did you ever get it?
Premise: Lucas’s brother Aidan disappeared. For a week, he was nowhere to be found. When he reappears as mysteriously as he disappeared, the entire community is thrilled, but Aidan’s story about where he’s been alters how people react.
Rating: 2.5/5 Target: 4-7
Motifs: truth, camaraderie, belief, friendship, brothers, public opinion, perception, rejection vs. support, LGBQTIA+
Title: not much significance here, other than the potential misconception that the bulk of the narrative will be in Aidan’s words. Lucas tells this narrative. It’s about him and his conflict given Aidan’s disappearance and reappearance.
Main Characters: Aidan (12 y.o. he/him), Lucas (11 y.o. he/him)
Great for…* (readers): who appreciate a story without a lot of action or are looking for positive LGBTIA+ adult role models
Great for…* (teachers): theme/motif development, small groups/reading circles, words of the wiser (Notice&Note)
Premise: When Lily, her mom, and her sister move from California to Washington to live with her halmoni, Lily comes in contact with a car-sized tiger who her mom and sister can’t see. The tiger claims Lily’s halmoni stole stories that belong in the stars. Lily must return the stories to the tiger in order to get what she wants from the tiger. But can tigers ever be trusted? Can halmoni? Can her mom or sister? Can she?
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4th-8th grade
Motifs (not exhaustive): Korean folklore, family, female relationships, grief, coming of age, independence, tame vs. wild, captive vs. free, identity, otherness, truth
Great for..* (readers): students who are quiet or feel left out, children dealing with grief or moving
Great for…* (teachers): character development, figurative language, folklore, Asian literature/studies, character contrasts
Other Reviews referenced by KZ in this vlog: Fighting Words, a Newbery Honor book
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.