A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
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.
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.
Violence & Scariness
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.
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"Crap." Della uses the word "snow" in place of a variety of swear words.
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Products & Purchases
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.
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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 caused 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.
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.
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