I give this book about children dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse...an 80/100.
Growing up, my childhood was pretty good, and my parents love and accept me for who I am. But when I started getting really into reading in 6th or 7th grade, I always found myself morbidly curious about books exploring tough topics like bullying, child abuse, illness, and even sexual abuse. Don't worry, I don't mean this in a creepy, fetishistic way either. That's gross and unethical. It was more in the "Why would anyone, let alone a parent, want to hurt their child?" kind of way. I actively sought out any media that dealt with these kinds of topics, via movies, TV series, books (Both fiction and non-fiction), and so on. I even met and befriended people who went through similar experiences themselves, and I can bet that they would have loved to have read a book like this, if only to let them know that they weren't alone in their struggles and to give them something they can relate to. I was already interested in Kim Brubaker Bradley's work after reading The War That Saved My Life and its sequel, but the second I read the premise of Fighting Words, I knew I wanted to read it as soon as my local library reopened. Having read it, I can say it met my expectations. It's not a masterpiece in any way, but it is an important book.
The story centers on two sisters, ten-year-old Della and sixteen-year-old Suki, who have just been put into a new foster home under the care of a woman named Francine. Their mother's in prison for blowing up a meth lab and endangering her kids, and said mother's evil boyfriend was cruel to the both of them in ways no child should ever have to go through. Della and Suki are trying their hardest to carve out a normal life for themselves, and Della is confident that she'll be fine as long as Suki is there to protect her, like she's always done. But Suki hasn't had anyone to protect her throughout her life, and is still reeling from the trauma she had to endure, trying desperately to hide the extent of what happened to her out of fear and shame. It gets so bad that she attempts to kill herself one day, and Della's life is turned upside down.
I knew reading Fighting Words was going to be a different experience compared to reading her War That Saved My Life duology, especially considering that this book takes place in the modern day rather than in the forties, so I had a feeling that the prose would be different as well. It's not as overly detailed and eloquent here as it was in TWTSML, but it's perfectly easy to understand and breeze through. It helps that the chapters are short and Della's narration, while not entirely believable, does hit more than it misses. I did find the overusage of snow as a substitute for cursing to be really irritating though, and while I can understand why the authoress did this (Presumably to keep it in the children's novel rating, as adding in profanity would ramp it up to a teen rating), I just found it to be obnoxious, and it took me out of the story more often than not. Luckily, this is mitigated by the wonderful cast of main characters, all of whom all have the right amount of pagetime and development, or at least manage to get it overtime. The minor characters are okay, but aren't as fleshed out as the main trio. I definitely wanted to see more of Teena and Luisa.
I liked how the story played out, and everything felt natural and realistic. Well, about as realistic as can be expected in regards to tough topics like suicide, sexual abuse, awful parents, and so on. I've never been through stuff like that myself, so I can't really comment on the authenticity of it. Bradley does say in the afterword that the book is based on some of her own experiences as a CSA survivor, and for what it's worth, none of the sexual abuse is described graphically or in detail, but definitely implied, and it's never used for shock value or forced drama as far as I can tell. It also helps that the book doesn't try to resolve every issue and tie it up in a neat little bow at the end, as that's not how life works, but that doesn't mean the characters can't find happiness. Now, I know a lot of people are going to take issue with the fact that this book, aimed at children, is covering topics like suicide and sexual abuse at all, claiming that kids shouldn't learn about those things in any way, or at least only have this book be shown to teenagers or older.
Personally, I think the idea of trying to hide tough topics from kids at all is utter bullshit. People are constantly underestimating children's intelligence when it comes to whether they can handle tough topics or not, and I really don't think actively trying to sanitize everything aimed at kids is the best way to go about this. I know every person handles these things differently, and with every kid that does want to know about tough topics like these, there are just as many who are sensitive and don't want to know about them until they're old enough to handle it, and that's fine. But I've always held the philosophy that kids should at least learn about these tough topics so they can learn how to deal with them, should they ever find themselves in that sort of situation. Why not use them as teaching tools in order to teach kids things like kindess, empathy, and the importance of reaching out for help? Kids are much smarter and more resilient than people give them credit for. I think every child should form their own opinion about whether they know they can handle tough topics in their media or not and make the decision for themselves whether they want to learn about them or not. Oh, and any overzealous Karens trying to claim that even the mere knowledge of suicide and CSA will somehow "corrupt the children" can go jump in an ocean of sulfiric acid.
Not perfect, but it's definitely an important book that absolutely deserves to be read at least once, especially for people going through the same situations as the main characters are. Remember, you're not alone, and all the bad things that happened to you are never your fault.