Fighting Words takes on a difficult topic with a feisty, flawed, brave protagonist.
Sometimes a novel appears that seems to require more than a simple review. Two perspectives on it will be better than one. Such a novel is Fighting Words, by Newbery-honor author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Any children’s book that reaps seven (count ’em!) starred reviews from the top review journals is worth a look. This one, as the author reveals at the end, is deeply personal. For this discussion we’ve invited one of our faithful readers, Meredith Burton, to talk over Fighting Words with Janie.
Janie: Our protagonist, Della Roberts, begins by warning us she has a sad story to tell. But not right away. At ten years old, her life has packed plenty of sadness already. Her mother, who has no more motherly instincts than a hamster, is now incarcerated and psychotic–that’s what meth will do. Della and her sister Suki have different daddies they don’t know anything about. When Mama blew up their last home, a motel room, while cooking meth, a man named Clifton took in Della and her sister Suki. He had some connection with their mother, but is definitely not their daddy.
As the story opens, Della and her sister have escaped Clifton’s house after an incident she’s not ready to talk about, and have just been placed with a foster parent. Adult readers will already have a dreadful suspicion about what happened, but most young readers won’t. We’ll talk more about that, but first–Meredith, you were very impressed with Fighting Words. Tell us what you see as its chief virtues.
Meredith: Fighting Words impressed me because it explores similar themes that can be found in Bradley’s historical works: the relationship between siblings, the need for courage, and the intervention of kind adults. The book’s chief virtue is its exploration of the love between the two main characters. Della and Suki face harrowing situations and the novel beautifully portrays the sacrificial love both sisters have for each other. Adults will understand that Suki has a greater burden than she can bear, but no one who reads this book will deny the theme of sacrifice.
Another chief virtue is the novel’s exploration of the need to take a stand against injustice. Della employs less-than-constructive methods of dealing with anger, including the frequent use of swear words, which she substitutes with the word “snow,” but she gradually learns that true strength can be found in learning appropriate ways to express her feelings. The novel exposes the shortcomings of the justice system while showing ways we can all make a difference.
Janie, how well do you feel the author portrayed adults in the novel, and why do you think this could be an important book for families to read together?
Janie: Her portrayal of adults is one of the strengths of the novel, I think. The most outstanding adult character is Francine the foster mother. You don’t know what to think of her at first: Della describes her as one of the ugliest women she’s ever seen, and when introduced Francine seems blunt and unfeeling. She tells girls she does foster care for the money and asks if they have a clothing allowance. But then she takes them to Old Navy to get clothes—rather than Good Will, where she could have spent a tiny fraction of the allowance and pocketed the difference. As we get to know Francine we understand that she’s received some hard knocks herself and while not warm and fuzzy, her empathy runs deep. Her no-nonsense style proves to be what the girls need. Of the other adult characters, Maybelline (who works the night shift at the Food City deli) is a fine example of random acts of kindness. Coach Tony and Della’s therapist are also helpful and sympathetic. Clifton, the villain of the piece, doesn’t appear except in Della’s recollection, but her most vivid memory of him is actually the pivotal point of the story.
As for your other question, I think it’s an important book, but perhaps not for every family. Younger children in stable households don’t necessarily need to know that approximately 1/3 of kids their age face some sort of abuse. (I hope that statistic isn’t quite accurate!) Older kids, say 12 and up, should be aware of the threat that some of their peers face every day. Della is an outstanding medium for this message: a distinctive yet relatable character. I should add, though it’s a spoiler, that Clifton doesn’t get a chance to abuse Della, but Suki has been his victim for years. Della just didn’t know it, but when she witnesses Suki’s attempted suicide (another phenomenon that’s distressingly common among teens these days) she’s consumed with guilt. These are heavy themes, though Della’s unique voice and sense of humor lighten them a bit. Still, too much for younger kids.
How would you suggest a family approach these subjects?
Meredith: I think books of this sort are extremely valuable for young Christians. It’s natural to want to shelter children from such heavy subjects, but we need to help them understand the reality of sin and the havoc it can wreak upon the innocent. Della and Suki have had to grow up much too quickly. Unfortunately, many children face similar situations (including Bradley herself, as she informs us in the Author Note). Della’s voice, while blunt and sarcastic at times, is authentic and engaging. Kids will feel for both her and Suki. They will also laugh at the humor in the story (which is blessedly prevalent). Parents can discuss the ways their children can reach out toward others who might come from similar family situations. Also, Della’s relationship with her friend Neveah, including the positive negative ways she responds to Neveah’s offers of friendship, will generate some important discussions.
I recommend families read the Author’s Note and research the resources Bradley provides. They could also seek ways to help others in need around them: volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter, for example. I also recommend reading recently-published books that deal with similar themes, such as The Blackbird Girls, Chirp, and A Game of Fox & Squirrels. These are written in more subtle tones but still address these relevant issues. Do you have any other resources, fiction or nonfiction, to recommend for families who read this book?
Janie: Good question! Rachel Denhollander, who was the first victim to expose the abuses of U Michigan doctor Larry Nasser, has written of her experience in What Is a Girl Worth? We never got around to reviewing it, but Denhollander brings a Christian sensibility to the subject while pulling no punches. Child abuse of all kinds is frightfully common in our society, and we dishonor our calling if we ignore the cries of the innocent. Even though Fighting Words makes little mention of God, it demonstrates the strong moral core and sense of outrage that every Christian should feel.
Fighting Words may be a strong Newbery contender–we’ll see.
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