MMGM and #IMWAYR (3/22/2021): Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (plus the 2021 Books by Asian-American Voices Giveaway!)

Lots to discuss today! First of all, I have redesigned my blog! I won't get too far into the details (since I already did so in this post), but suffice it to say that the new template works better on smaller screens and is far more aesthetically pleasing. (It also has a new header image that I took myself, which features the book I am reviewing today alongside Faith: Taking Flight and The List of Things That Will Not Change!)

Also, it has officially been (a) an entire year since I joined #IMWAYR and (b) an entire year of me blogging every single week! I'm honestly as shocked as you are that I've managed it this long—as the MMGM bloggers know, I have had a history of dropping of the face of the Earth for months at a time. But I've finally managed to stick with blogging, and I plan to keep participating in both MMGM and #IMWAYR for as many consecutive weeks as I can manage!

One more thing: make sure to keep going past the end of today's review for information about the 2021 Books by Asian-American Voices Giveaway, which I am holding as a response to the horrible hate crimes committed in Georgia that resulted in the deaths of 8, including 6 Asian-American women (and the other horrible hate crime against a woman named Xiao Zhen Xie in San Francisco).

Before we get to that, though, I do have a book review today of the excellent novel Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Review of Fighting Words:

TRIGGER WARNING for sexual abuse and attempted suicide. (I'm sure that doesn't make you want to keep reading, but trust me—it'll be worth it. Unless these things are actually triggers for you, in which case, of course skip this post.)

          Fighting Words, besides being recommended by many book bloggers recently (such as Patricia Tilton, who wrote an excellent review of it over at Children's Books Heal), is a Newbery Honor book as of this past January! This award, combined with the countless recommendations of this book, managed me to get it read in a timely fashion. (Basically, if I read it within a year of everyone else, it's timely for me.) Fighting Words is the latest book from well-known MG author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, who has been writing for 24 years and is probably best known for another Newbery Honor book, The War That Saved My Life. Whatever this book had been, it would have been a big deal, but after having read it, I can say that this book is revolutionary. Allow me to explain—right after this publisher's description, which I'm sharing instead of my own summary because it's way better than what I could come up with.

          Ten-year-old Della has always had her older sister, Suki: When their mom went to prison, Della had Suki. When their mom's boyfriend took them in, Della had Suki. When that same boyfriend did something so awful they had to run fast, Della had Suki. Suki is Della's own wolf—her protector. But who has been protecting Suki? Della might get told off for swearing at school, but she has always known how to keep quiet where it counts. Then Suki tries to kill herself, and Della's world turns so far upside down, it feels like it's shaking her by the ankles. Maybe she's been quiet about the wrong things. Maybe it's time to be loud.

          In this powerful novel that explodes the stigma around child sexual abuse and leavens an intense tale with compassion and humor, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells a story about two sisters, linked by love and trauma, who must find their own voices before they can find their way back to each other.

          I already know exactly what you're thinking. "Sounds important. And depressing. No thanks." That is a natural response—I certainly had it, reading reviews of this book. But here's the thing. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is far from the first MG author to decide to write a depressing realistic-fiction MG book. Walk Two Moons, Kira-kira, Counting Thyme, Love, Aubrey, the list goes on...and on...and on...and on...and, well, you get the point. I mean, there's so many of these books that the Newbery Medal is given out every year! So Fighting Words doesn't sound terribly original—in fact, it sounds just like yet another MG book afflicted with the same flaws as every other realistic MG book. And yet Fighting Words is original. Not just original, but as I said earlier, revolutionary, especially in the world of MG books. Why? How?

          Well, first of all, I learned quite a few things about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley from this book—not the least of which is that she apparently has a Rebecca-Stead-esque knack for writing from the mind of a child. It's funny (not in a laugh-out-loud way, of course) that every grim-MG-book protagonist is as wise as an adult, when actual children go through actual grim things in real life and don't transform into adults. If you've read Stead's The List of Things That Will Not Change and remember how Bea wormed her way into your heart, well, expect for pretty much the same exact feeling with Della here. Della is a kid, and Bradley allows her to be one. She has friends, and random little interests, and flights of fancy, and that down-to-earthness that belies her ability to notice and perceive practically everything about the world around her. And because Bradley, like Stead, manages to work countless little fun details into this story, we get the meaningful moments that pop out of every crevice in the world. Grocery shopping isn't fun to us, yet seeing Della gradually befriend a woman named Maybelline who works at the deli counter, or watching her develop a running joke with her new friend Nevaeh about the ridiculous flavors of coffee creamer that exist in this world, make us look at Food City, as it's called in the story, in a whole new way. When Della develops a fascination with wolves, we see (as does she, to some extent) how it's a metaphor for being safe and fighting off harm, yet there's a level of genuine fascination in the subject, and the YouTube videos, and the websites about Yellowstone National Park, that so many MG authors would deem unnecessary. It's not unnecessary. It is precisely what being a kid is all about. And Kimberly Brubaker Bradley gets that, in a truly genuine way. (Trust me, if it wasn't genuine, I wouldn't be comparing her to my actual favorite author of all time.)

          In Fighting Words, Bradley nails every emotional beat—nails them right into your heart, that is. I teared up three times reading this, which is an actual record for me (even Efrén Divided only got one set of tears out of me). If you're a crier, buy a bulk box of tissues at Sam's Club or Costco. Della and her older sister Suki have survived so much that it's no surprise there's lingering mental damage. Suki has spent her entire life taking care of Della—basically, imagine a parent who's been one since 8 years old. And then imagine her being a parent in the home of an abuser, and her trying to keep her little sister safe in such a place. And imagine this for days, and then those turn into weeks, and those add up to months, and the months make a year, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another... Suki is already bearing a horrifying amount of emotional weight and PTSD from her own experiences (at one point in the story, she starts to wake up screaming every single night), and then just pile up the combo of guilt about Della and resentment toward her and her helplessness (she's only 10, 8 years after this all began), and you can see how Suki might be pushed to the brink of suicide. And then imagine Della, whose only consolation in her own trauma and years of fear has been Suki being by her side and keeping her safe. Imagine Della's guilt at having let Suki do this, and never having seen just how much Suki was suffering on the inside. And also the fact that Della sees Suki attempt to kill herself. She. Sees. It. Happen. (I feel like that bears mentioning in this review, because as much as I want kids to be exposed to this story, that passage might be one to skip during a read-aloud.) And then, because why not, let's throw in the upcoming criminal trial, and the ever-unpleasant fact that the people least ready to speak about trauma (they've lived it, after all) are the ones who have to do so if they want the criminal behind bars. Such a fun time, as I'm sure you can imagine. Not.

          So what do Della and Suki do now? What do they do, when, as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley so deftly shows us, they are forced—thrown, really—to the lowest of low depths? What now? What happens now...is them getting better. Healing. Learning to swim up from the deepest depths of our ocean, and leap up out of the waves, and soar higher, and higher, wings flapping, facing the wind in their eyes, until they are nothing but a shimmering, euphoric speck in the distance. Well...not quite. Two specks, side by side, reaching new heights together. Suki and Della obviously get help with their mental health. (The scenes with Della and her therapist, Dr. Fremont, are also very reminiscent, in a fabulous way, of The List of Things That Will Not Change.) Suki and Della learn to walk the path of their memories and look for only what they need. They learn to find the bits of their past life they want to keep, and the rest that they want to leave behind. Over a series of beautifully written and shockingly normal moments, full of realism and compassion, they learn to trust each other again, and they keep each other going. It's what sisters do, after all, especially ones like Della and Suki. Della makes friends at her new school, like the aforementioned Nevaeh (a truly considerate and wonderful child as well), and learns that, even despite occasional conflicts, two friends can always be there for each other. She and Suki also learn that their foster parent, the prickly-seeming Francine, might have more layers—many more—than it first appears (and I know I learned that sometimes, a guardian giving children the space they need to grow while being there to support them and keep them safe can be one of the most powerful things.) And Della learns one more thing. She learns that, as much as she loves her fighting words (prepare for the word "snow" as a substitute for cursing), the strength of her voice can be used in other ways. And whether those are asking for consent, helping her sister face up to awful memories, or speaking about what is so often unspoken, Della's voice, she realizes, is how she can change the world.

          I'm not surprised to see a Newbery Honor book that tackles difficult subject matter. What I am surprised to see is a Newbery Honor book that tackles difficult subject matter in a way that is empowering, childlike, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, truly exuberant and joyous. When a bone breaks, it grows back stronger, and when Della and Suki find themselves broken as well, they learn to, both alone and together, find their strength as well. This story's characters, writing, and joy make it probably the only book this grim that I want to reread, again and again. And, considering how horrifically common sexual abuse is (Bradley, who survived it herself, shares statistics on her website showing it happens to 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys), I think a countless number of readers will connect on an even deeper level. This book is a model for MG books tackling difficult subjects, and I truly hope that every author who aspires to Newbery-level writing reads Fighting Words and learns that sadness and happiness aren't either/or. They are inextricable, and that's a good thing.

My rating is: Stunning!






Giveaway Details:

I wish I didn't have to jump from one sad topic right to another, but that is just the world we live in, apparently. Hate crimes against Asian-Americans were already on the rise when a mass shooting in Georgia resulted in the deaths of 8 people, including 6 Asian-American women. In addition, an attack in San Francisco resulted in another Asian-American woman, Xiao Zhen Xie, being injured. As if all of that wasn't horrible and sobering enough, some people decided that now was the perfect time to say how the killer in Georgia's actions were motivated because "yesterday was a really bad day for him." And some more people (specifically, the U.S. Representative and apparent lunatic Chip Roy from Texas) decided that this was the perfect time to say that Texas is in favor of justice because Texans will just lynch the bad guys. (If you want to become wildly enraged, please read this relevant article.)

So, first of all, my heart goes out to the victims of these attacks and their families—so many valuable lives have been lost, so many real dreams and hopes crushed permanently. (This article and this article go through each of the victims in turn and are worth a read, and this article takes a closer look at one victim, Xiaojie Tan, and her family.) My heart also goes out to the entire Asian-American community, as there is obviously an enormous volume of fear resulting from these horrible attacks. I cannot imagine what it must be like to step out of the front door and fear for your life going to work or the store.

I don't want either of these horrible attacks to result in us shrugging and moving on. We need to do things to fix this. And there are some things to do! First of all, make some donations. Donate to Stop AAPI Hate, the organization that reported the increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the first place (on that page, click the menu icon in the top-right and choose Donate). Or donate to the AAPI Community Fund on GoFundMe, which is actually run by GoFundMe and will distribute funds to a variety of relevant and important organizations. Also, please take a look at the GoFundMe pages for many of the victims here, here, here, and here. It's also worth taking a look at this page with resources and workshops regarding bystander intervention training that have been specifically adapted in light of these crimes.

Zooming in to the world of kidlit specifically, there are quite a few fantastic books by Asian-American authors and illustrators that deserve to be spread around and learned from. As such, I am running the 2021 Books by Asian-American Voices Giveaway to encourage you all to read some of these truly excellent stories! I will be giving away one (1) copy each of the following five books:

  • Displacement by Kiku Hughes, an MG graphic novel (see my review)
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, an MG novel (see my review)
  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu, an MG graphic novel (see my review)
  • Parachutes by Kelly Yang, a YA novel (see my review)
  • The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, an MG graphic novel (see my review) (Yes, I know I did a giveaway of this book already, but considering that I've read it twice in five months and consider it my second-favorite book of all time, I'm giving it away yet again.)
I have read each and every one of these books and can confirm that they are all FANTASTIC! Here are the rules of the giveaway:
  • If you win, your book will come to you directly from Amazon.
  • Just to be clear, these copies are NOT signed by the authors.
  • Each entrant is only eligible to win one (1) book.
  • Entrants must have mailing addresses in the United States or Canada. (Please note that, in my previous experience shipping to Canada from Amazon, it has been ridiculously slow—I am more than happy to do it regardless, but just be aware.)
  • Enter using the Google Form below, NOT the comments.
  • Please only select the books you are interested in—that way, I can make sure that other people win the stories they are interested in as well. If you do not select a book, you will not have a chance of receiving that book.
  • Winners will be selected randomly.
  • You must enter an email address so that I can contact you via email for a mailing address if you win. I will not keep or share your email address or mailing address.
    • Please, please, PLEASE give me an email address that you check regularly (including spam/junk), as I will choose a new winner if you do not respond to my initial email within 48 hours.
  • You must also enter a nickname for me to post on my blog if you win; it does not need to be your real name (although it can be if you want).
  • The last full day to enter this giveaway is Monday, March 29, 2021, as I will close the form the morning of Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
  • If you are reading this post in your email, click on the post title to open it in your browser and view the entry form below.
I look forward to seeing entries in the giveaway and to spreading these incredible stories to even more readers!


Comments

  1. It's a beautiful & heartfelt review of Fighting Words, which I still have not read & of course it's on my list. I hope I can get to it soon. You've shown me how wonderful it is! Also, last week was indeed full of heartbreak. I have nieces & nephews who are Asian-American & face this egregious behavior every day. We have talked about it & helped support them for a long, long time. You are kind to create the giveaway. Thanks for a terrific post!

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    1. Thank you so much! Fighting Words is definitely worth a read, and I hope you get a chance to read it soon! I'm sorry that your nieces and nephews have had to deal with prejudice for so long, and I'm glad you appreciate the giveaway. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  2. I still need to read Fighting Words. Excellent (and thorough, as always) review! I had not known that the author went through that herself. How brave of her to write about a similar situation.

    And I completely agree that we need to do something about the ongoing racism and prejudice in this country and not let last week's horrifying murders be forgotten. I've already donated to Stop AAPI Hate, and I've already signed up with Hollaback's Bystander Intervention Training. Heartening to know so many people want to do this that they've had to add more workshops. Mine is in mid-April.

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    1. Thank you! The bravery that it must have taken Bradley to write this is pretty much unfathomable—I really am awestruck even now. I'm so glad to hear about your donation and workshop sign-up! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  3. Fighting Words sound like a book I should read, especially if it's at all like a Rebecca Stead book. And thanks for the giveaway. I'm planning to donate to Stop AAIP Hate.

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    1. I really haven't seen many authors who even come close to Stead's talent except for Bradley. I'm glad you're planning to make a donation! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  4. It is important for young people to see themselves in a story like "Fighting Words " They won't feel so alone and maybe finally reach out to someone for help. It's also a healing book for those who've experienced sexual abuse and know that the book is based on the author's own experience. And I agree with your lovely words about how Bradley writes from the mind of a child. That's why her characters shine! I loved this book! And, thank you for the mention! And, I appreciated your comments about the hate crimes against Asian Americans.

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    1. Thank you so much for recommending this book—I don't know that I would have got around to reading it otherwise, and that would have been a shame! I completely agree about how cathartic this book will be for so many. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. Stunning is the perfect word for Fighting Words. I was hooked from the first sentence.

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    1. I know! I feel like Bradley managed to make every single sentence a work of art in and of itself—I don't know how she pulled it off, except that she's just ridiculously talented! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  6. I have this one at the top of my reading pile. Your review placed even more background and insights as to why it is such an important read. Thanks for featuring on MMGM and for the giveaway. I'll let someone else win as I have 4 of the 5 books already. Kelly Yang though is one of my favorite authors.

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    1. I'm glad Fighting Words is on your radar—I am positive that you'll love it! It's great that you already have some of the books I'm giving away. And yes, Yang is fantastic—I haven't read her Front Desk series yet, but Parachutes was truly incredible and dealt with some similarly stigmatized topics to Fighting Words. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  7. As Lisa said, I was completely pulled in by Fighting Words. Thanks for the great review and also the giveaway. The events in Atlanta are horrible and posts like yours bring to light that we can all do more to prevent racism.

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    1. I'm glad you had a chance to read this excellent book! I'm also glad to hear that my resources in light of these awful crimes are of use. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  8. I had Fighting Words on my TBR list, but after reading your wonderful review, I moved it to the top and added some stars. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That's a very generous giveaway you are doing and very supportive of Asian-American writers. I also appreciate the donation links. What wonderful post today. Thanks.

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    1. I'm so glad! I'm sure you'll love Fighting Words, and I'm happy to hear the resources and giveaway are of use! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  9. I really appreciated Fighting Words even though it was a tough book to read. That is a thorough review and I'm glad you're featuring the book so it gets to more readers. Thanks also for the giveaway. I entered on behalf of students at my school, so if I win one, it will go to an elementary reader. :)

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad to hear you had a chance to read Fighting Words—it is tough, but worth the effort! I'm also glad you entered in the giveaway for your students. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  10. Wow! This book sounds powerful. I have read other books by this author and this sounds like an important (and difficult) read. Thanks for sharing.

    Also, thanks for the giveaway. I have read some of the books you are giving away and I look forward to reading the rest and sharing them with my students. :)

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  11. I adored Fighting Words and so I'm thrilled it found a place on your "stunning" list!! I'm glad there are so many books coming out on this topic and that author's are beginning to open up and share their personal experiences. Very few authors could write on a topic this sensitive for a middle grade audience, but Kimberly Brubaker Bradley nailed it. Thank you for the review AND for this generous giveaway!

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