I wasn’t surprised that Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words was a magnificent marvel, one of the best middle-grade books I’ve ever read. I loved her previous books, The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, and I knew that I would enjoy anything she wrote. For her latest, I’m not sure what I was expecting, just that I had high hopes. But even then, I was completely blown away. I haven’t read a book in a while that simultaneously broke my heart and pieced it back together again. I also haven’t read a book in a while with a character voice so clear and fresh that I could imagine her sitting down and telling me the story.
Fighting Words isn’t an easy read. It deals with things no child should have to live through or know about, and heed the content warnings, but it is also so brave and real and beautiful. After Della and her older sister, Sookie, were abandoned by their mother — who suffered from a meth addiction — their mother’s boyfriend takes them in. He’s an evil, sick man that the girls live with for years until one night, when they believe he’s at work, he comes home early and tries to assault Della — the same way he’s been doing to Sookie for a year. The girls are then sent to a foster mother, Francine, and it’s the first stable home they’ve ever been in. Francine may not be perfect but she helps the girls just by giving them a roof over their heads and a place to grow. She’s one of the best adult characters I’ve ever read.
Della tells the story in her unique, bright voice. She’s hilarious and unapologetic. “Snow” is a good substitute for the curse word that she uses regularly. She doesn’t shy away from anything — from her sister’s depression and suicide attempt, to their mother’s abandonment and her boyfriend’s subsequent abuse. But the hope for a better life as she settles into a new school, with friends and an actual adult to take care of her, is somehow soothing. Even with everything she’s gone through, she’s able to settle into a new beginning.
Like Della and Francine, Sookie is one of the most remarkable characters I’ve ever read. Her strength, even as she struggles, is difficult but real. Her experiences with PTSD and depression are heartbreaking, but Francine explains to Della that Sookie is getting help and as the reader, I felt comforted by that. I thought it was handled with aplomb — maybe because Kimberly Brubaker Bradley suffered from abuse when she was young and wrote this for the survivors. And at the end of the book, I was grateful for the survivors and for Kimberly’s story. Sometimes reading (even fictional accounts) someone surviving the worst and finding hope afterwards, is all you need as you live through your own battles.
I hope this book is taught and shared. I imagine that it isn’t the easiest read but it might help open discussions on trauma and the healing that can come after. It can be a comfort for any reader lucky enough to experience it. I also can’t recommend the audiobook enough — it was a delight to listen to, even if it made me cry on occasion. Either way, I hope you read this beautiful book.