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: It’s been 278 days since Rain’s brother Guthrie died, and Rain and her parents are moving 288 miles to have a fresh start (even if her mom is the only one who wants one). What happened that night is a big who knows to everyone except for Rain, but that secret means Guthrie’s death is her fault. With her secret and very few other items packed, Rain moves to NYC to process through the loss of her brother and the degradation of her parents’ marriage while she tries to fit into a new environment where she’s off on the wrong foot. (Check out the motifs section, there’s a ton of issues brought up by this book — and all well done.)
Rating: 4/5 Target: 4-8
Title: The title’s meaning remains open to numerous interpretations — so it’s a great discussion point post-read. I’ll wait for you to tell me your interpretation before I divulge mine.
Great for…* (readers): who have friends experiencing grief. As a mother of kids with nuclear family member loss, I want to give this book to all their friends so that they get an inside perspective of what it’s like. Also good for kids who feel alone, different, isolated, or are experiencing change.
Great for…* (teachers): This book is rife with figurative language and symbolism. It even weaves poetry in (as a school assignment), so it’s kind of asking for work on that front. Many allusions to The One and Only Ivan make for a great pairing if Ivan comes first.
Parental Warning(s): For children who have experienced death of a nuclear family member, this book could stir up difficult emotions.
Interact: Rain runs to wipe her thoughts away and empty her brain. What works for you?
Premise: Jessica was in an accident that left her in the hospital, recovering as an amputee. She’s a runner without a leg, and she must learn what that means for her present and her future, her family and her friends, her schoolwork and her social life.
Rating: 4/5 Target: 8th grade and up
Main Character: 16 y/o Jessica (she/her)
Title: Jessica has a reoccurring dream about running with her dog early in the morning, something she did regularly before the accident. The dream is both literal, in that when she sleeps she experiences it, and figurative, as her greatest desire is to be able to run again. The latter dream is the arc of the narrative (and then some….read it to find out what I mean, no spoilers here).
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: Who is Edie Green and what makes her different? Firstly, she didn’t know she was different until kindergarten when her teacher asked her where her family is from and all she could say was Seattle. Secondly, her mom is Native American, adopted into a white family. As far as Edie knows, they have no connection to her mother’s birth family. She doesn’t know if she’s a part of a local tribe or not. What she does know is she has Native American features — strikingly similar to a woman in a photograph Edie and her friends discover hidden in the attic. But who is the woman in the picture? And how could her parents be hiding information about this woman that may relate to her identity from her?
Rating: 4.5/5 Target: 5-8
Title: The title encapsulates the entirety of the book and only takes its full significance in the final pages. So, to be purposely vague, it’s poignant.
Main Characters: Edie Green, 12 y/o (she/her)
Motifs (not exhaustive): identity, friendship, truth & hidden truth, disagreement, artistry/creativity, otherness, acceptance, coming of age, Native American history/culture, American history, family/adoption
Great for…* (readers): who are themselves coming of age, figuring out who they are and how they fit into a world with ever-changing knowledge about themselves. Readers who appreciate OWN voices, a bit of mystery, or history will also enjoy this book.
Great for…* (teachers): x Native American history, x Washington state history, motif and theme development, x art/film project, MAKE SURE TO READ THE AUTHOR’s NOTE FOR RELATED CLASS CONTENT/PROJECTS.
If you find yourself getting asked “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” how do you respond? What do you want the people who ask those questions to understand?
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.