“I’ve learned that some things are almost impossible to talk about because they’re things no one wants to know,” says Delicious Neveah Roberts, the narrator of Newbery Honor author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s magnificent Fighting Words. The 10-year-old, who goes by Della, already sports a tattoo and openly admits that she has a “big mouth” and that her superpower is, “I don’t take snow from anybody.” (Della uses the word “snow” as a substitute whenever she’d rather use a “bad word,” which is frequently.) “Sometime you’ve got a story you need to find the courage to tell,” Della informs the reader with characteristic directness.
Della is inseparable from her 16-year-old half-sister, Suki. Their mother was incarcerated in Kansas after blowing up a motel room while making meth with both girls at her side. Her parental rights were terminated, and the girls fell through the cracks and continued to live with Clifton, their mother’s boyfriend, in Tennessee. As the book opens, the girls have just made a bold escape from Clifton’s house and have been placed into foster care after Suki caught Clifton abusing Della. Della reveals, “I’d had sixty seconds of terror. Suki had had years.”
Bradley depicts the girls’ story, including Clifton’s abuse, directly but gently, in a way that never once feels inappropriate for a middle grade readership. She carefully recounts the aftermath of their trauma (Suki has screaming nightmares and attempts suicide) as the girls are placed first in temporary care with a woman Della describes as an “emergency replacement witch” and then with cigarette-smoking Francine, about whom Della observes there is “nothing motherly,” but who turns out to be exactly the protector the sisters so desperately need.
Della makes a few friends at her new school, most notably Neveah, with whom she shares her middle name. As Della and Suki debate whether and how to testify against Clifton, Della clashes with her teacher and a bully named Trevor, who likes to pinch girls’ backs to see whether they’re wearing bras. These tensions culminate in a powerful moment in which Della proclaims, “Never touch me again. Never touch me or any girl in this class without permission ever again.”
In all truthfulness, I was reluctant to read Fighting Words when I learned about the topics its plot would include. “How depressing,” I thought. But oh, how wrong I was. Bradley handles these tough subjects in ways that are enlightening, empowering and—yes—uplifting, thanks largely to the irrepressible Della’s engaging narrative voice, which itself is a testament to Bradley’s immense talent.
As their friendship deepens, Della’s friend Neveah, whose family lost their apartment and briefly lived out of their car, lends her a copy of Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog. Though Della fails to connect with O’Connor’s tale of another girl in a “tough spot,” Neveah’s articulation of the book’s importance in her life is certain to be echoed by some readers of Fighting Words: “I was glad, you know, to read the book. To know it didn’t only happen to me.”
An award-worthy tale about a feisty survivor, Fighting Words is a story readers will draw strength from, and Della is a heroine they’ll be unlikely to forget.