Fighting Words

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Fighting Words Book Poster Image
Powerful, moving story of 10-year-old recovering from abuse.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 4 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 5 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Negative information about "meth," that it messes you up really badly and often explodes when you cook it. Emphasizes that sexual assault and abuse are more common that we realize, that it's never the child's fault, and that people can and do heal from it. May inspire empathy for those who have experienced sexual assault and/or abuse. Explains what consent is, how it works, and who's allowed to touch you. Breathing techniques and mental exercises to help you calm down. In the Author's Note, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says that she was sexually abused, explains how it affects you when bad things happen, and offers resources and hopeful advice for victims of abuse.

Positive Messages

Speaking out about things that aren't right, and sharing your story are good because you can change things that way. It's hard to talk about things like abuse when no one wants to know about it, but talking about it is an important step in healing. Also, maybe if we talked about it more, it would happen less. Trying to keep everything under control, especially when you're hurting emotionally, is impossible. Feelings will build up in you that need a release valve, and therapy is a helpful release valve for many people. There's nothing wrong with seeing a therapist or asking for help when you need it. Just having someone's love, and giving someone your love, is way more important than you might think. People can always heal. It takes time, and it's hard, but it can be done.

Positive Role Models

Della is a great model for speaking out about things that are wrong. She learns why that's important, and it helps her find the courage to get help and to confront the man who assaulted her in a legal setting. She's extremely loyal to her older sister Suki, and they model a close and loving sibling bond even though they fight sometimes. Suki is a good model for taking care of Della, but tries to suppress her own experience of abuse and doesn't ask for help when she's really hurting. She learns from that the hard way, and determines to ask for help when she needs it. Della's teacher is pretty oblivious and unappreciative of how hard it is for Della to cope with school and her emotions, but she changes when she finally really understands what Della went through. Foster mother Francine is gruff and pretends not to care, but she's a great model for supporting the sisters, advocating for them, and taking care of them responsibly and thoroughly. Almost all characters are White, but some names suggest diverse ethnicities and one sympathetic and supportive adult character is Black.


An adult sexually assaulting a child is described with specifics like hands on thighs, down the back inside of underwear, a hand on the neck, and pulling shorts and underwear down. The assault was interrupted at that point. A suicide attempt mentions a knife plunging, blood spurting, and a severed artery. Nothing is specified or described but a teen's past regular sexual abuse over the course of years is a prominent theme. Two children narrowly escape from a fire caused by "cooking meth," and the consequences of that are a prominent theme. A fourth-grade boy assaults his female classmates by pinching their backs where bra straps would be. Della kicked the boy "in the zipper" and punched him in the stomach once. She was disciplined but the boy was not. There's a brief description of pain from getting a tattoo.


"Crap." Della uses the word "snow" in place of a variety of swear words.


A few food, drink, and clothing brands mentioned.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Della and Suki's mother was addicted to crystal meth and is in prison in another state for causing an explosion while manufacturing it. In a picture the mother is described with black teeth and sores on her face. Foster mother Francine smokes. Suki (16) tries to take a cigarette but Francine won't let her because she's under age.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's Fighting Words won a 2021 Newbery Honor. It's  a realistic depiction of two sisters, 10 and 16, recovering from years of sexual abuse and a sexual assault. Talking about abuse as a way to start healing from it, and maybe as a way to start having it happen less often are central themes. One assault is described with details about hand placement and removing shorts and underwear without mentioning sensitive body parts. A suicide attempt mentions a knife plunging and blood spurting. Readers learn some details about the long process of recovery after a suicide attempt. Parental loss from incarceration is another prominent theme along with drug addiction and escaping from an explosion cause by "cooking meth." Coping with a bully who assaults classmates is another theme. Overall messages are positive about how healing is difficult but definitely possible, about finding the courage to change things and heal by speaking out, and make it clear that being abused is never the child's fault. Readers will learn a lot about the effects of addiction and abuse, and about how to help someone who's experienced those things, or how to seek help if they've experienced them themselves.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byJtidwell07 November 28, 2020
Sexual abuse is such an important and difficult topic to discuss, especially with younger kids. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley does so with great sensitivity, empowe... Continue reading
Adult Written byAlliceTheCritic July 14, 2021

Really good!

So, I'm on my mom's phone and desperate to write this review. This book is so good, like, I'm 9 and I've re-read this bok 3 times! I saw a l... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old July 4, 2021

Excellent Book!

I think this is a great book, but I got a tiny bit uncomfortable when it came to the sexual abuse. I am 11, and read a lot of not so happy stuff (e.g. World War... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old May 14, 2021

Good but I wasn't ready

I read this book when I was ten. Now that I'm older, I realize it was very well written and really illustrated what Della's experience was. But - it w... Continue reading

What's the story?

FIGHTING WORDS is the story of how fourth-grader Della finds the courage to tell her story by talking about some of the hardest things anyone could try to talk about. After their mother was sent to prison in another state for crimes related to her addiction to crystal meth, Della and her sister Suki, who's six years older than Della, lived with a man who wasn't their father and who sexually abused Suki over the course of many years. Then one night he tried to do the same to Della and was caught in the act. Della and Suki managed to escape to a friend's house, and now they're in a stable situation with foster mother Francine. But that doesn't mean everything is sunshine and rainbows now. In fact, the worst is yet to come. As Della tries to process her feelings and understand what happened to her and her sister, she learns the power of speaking up and speaking out. She also learns that it takes a lot of courage to talk about bad things that no one, especially Suki, wants to think about. When the time comes, can she be brave enough?

Is it any good?

With elegant simplicity that's raw and completely believable, author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells a harrowing story of abuse and the healing power of words. There's no melodrama and no sugar coating, just Della's rock-solid voice guiding the reader to empathy and understanding as she herself tries to understand her past, her present, and to have hope for her future. By tackling difficult subjects like abuse, addiction, and suicide simply, directly, and honestly, Della's story will help lots of kids understand that they're not the only ones, that it wasn't their fault, and that they can heal.

The ways that Della's experience at school parallels some of the issues created by sexual abuse will help young readers understand big concepts like consent and speaking up instead of lashing out. They'll also learn a lot about how to help someone who's hurting inside, how to be a good friend, and how important it is to have someone who loves you, who you love back.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Fighting Words. Why is child abuse, especially sexual abuse, hard to talk about? Is Della right when she says people don't want to know about it?

  • Why did Trevor get away with pinching girls' backs for so long? What finally made him stop? Have you ever seen anyone snapping bras, or has anyone ever done it to you? How did you feel, or what did you think you'd feel if it happened to you?

  • Suicide is another topic that's hard to talk about. Why is that? What can you do to help someone who's hurting inside? Where can you get help when you're hurting?

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