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Fighting Words, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: Fighting Words

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN#: 978-1-9848-1568-2

I don’t think I’ve ever naturally  categorized my thoughts about a book into a Top 10 list before, but Fighting Words, a 2021 Newbery Honor, lends itself to a list. 

Top 10 List of Things to Know About Fighting Words BEFORE Your Child Dives In

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

  1. Della, the 10-year old main character, is a nickname for Delicious. Her 16-year old’s sister’s name is Suki. Neither know where their names come from. Neither know who their fathers are. 
  2. Their mother is incarcerated for blowing up a motel room. Della and Suki were inside, while she was cooking meth in the bathroom. She is in a Kansas prison, while the girls live in Tennessee.
  3. The girls have just been placed with Francine, a foster care provider, following the arrest of Clifton, the man they have lived with since their mother was incarcerated. 
  4. Clifton is arrested for sexually molesting Della one time, after Suki takes a photo for evidence. 
  5. Clifton has been molesting Suki for years. 
  6. Suki attempts suicide with a knife and Della witnesses it. Suki spends weeks in a psychiatric hospital and improves. 
  7. Della likes to cuss. It allows her to release her anger. The cuss words are replaced with the word “snow.” For example, Della might call someone an asshole in real life, but in the book, she calls him a “snowman.” 
  8. This book also deals with consent in the school setting as well. Trevor, a classmate of Della’s, pinches girls in the back where their bras would be, should they be wearing one. As Della learns about consent in therapy, she teaches the girls in her class (and the staff at the school) that Trevor has no right to touch them without permission. 
  9. Suki and Della get tattoos (yes, real tattoos) to symbolize their journey of growth and healing. 
  10. The supporting characters in this book are genuine, authentic, and are the people that give hope for healing: Suki’s boss/Della’s basketball mentor at the Y, Maybelline (the deli worker), Teena (neighbor), therapist, and most importantly, Francine, the foster parent.  
  11. (A bonus!) It does have a realistic, yet positive, ending for these two sisters. 

Let me say that this book is extremely important. It will hopefully help those that have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, heal and learn. It may help others recognize the importance (and difficulty) of reporting abuse. It may be helpful to those living in foster homes. It may help others who have experienced or witnessed attempts at suicide and the aftermath it leaves behind. 

However, a parent or caregiver should be aware of the issues in this book. It would be best to read it together, and that’s IF you feel your child can handle it. While the recommendations for this book are for 10-14, I noticed on Goodreads that the recommendation in the U.K. is for 12 and up. While we know that there are many (too many) 10-year old Dellas in the world, this book is a LOT to handle for many middle grade readers, especially if read independently. 

Here, author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley shares her thoughts on why this book is appropriate for even 10-year olds.

“This is to remind me of the best day of my life.”

She looks down at me. For a wonder, she smiles back. “When was that?” she asks.

“Tomorrow,” I say.” (p. 259)

Fighting words, kimberly brubaker bradley (p. 259)

While I give this book a 5/5, something to note is the 4.73/5 rating on Goodreads. With 3,445 raters, that might be the highest rated book I’ve read in a long time. It has 7 starred reviews. Wowzas!

“Della’s matter-of-fact narration manages to be as funny and charming as it is devastatingly sad. . . . This is a novel about trauma and the scars it leaves on bodies, minds and hearts. But more than that, it’s a book about resilience, strength and healing.” New York Times Book Review

Braden, Ann. The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Sky Pony, 2018Bradley,

Kimberly Brubaker. Fighting Words. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. Candlewick, 2015. 

DiCamillo, Kate. Raymie Nightingale Trilogy. Candlewick, 2019.

Book Review: A Wish in the Dark, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: A Wish in the Dark

Author: Christina Soontornvat

Publisher: Candlewick, 2020

ISBN#978-1-5362-0494-0

In Chattana, the Governor rules. After a devastating fire that destroyed the village, the Governor appeared, bringing with him a new way to create light and all was good again. However, power can illuminate divisions and further separate those that have from the have not. While the three main characters Pong, Somkit, and Nok first cross paths in a prison at age 10, it’s the return of their forces 4 years later (and the experiences they’ve had while apart) that allow Chattana to reconsider power and how to yield it. 

“You can’t run away from darkness,” Pong whispered. “It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” p. 324

This book has a bit something for every middle grade reader (recommended reading age is 8-12 or grades 3-7), which is why I think it makes for an ideal read aloud, either at home on the couch with the whole family or in a classroom full of students. Pong (male prison inmate, mother was arrested, but died at childbirth) and Nok (female, daughter of prison warden) take turns telling the story,  This would also be a high interest read for an older student reading below grade level. 

Try this checklist to see if it meets the criteria for YOUR readers!

  • Male and female characters who are brave, yet vulnerable, with a variety of skill sets
  • Fantasy setting (with connections to Thai culture), but with realistic elements of today’s society
  • Plot twists told through revealing of new information previously unknown to the characters that change their trajectory (and your opinion of them)
  • Social justice issues, specifically relating to power and poverty
  • Survival story
  • Rule followers
  • Rule breakers
  • Martial Arts
  • Orphans
  • Humor
  • Police chase
  • Elements of light vs. dark/good vs. evil
  • Buddhist monks
  • Issues surrounding homelessness and food insecurity
  • Wise sages everyone can learn from
  • Prison break
  • Kids with tattoos
  • Fans of Les Mis
  • Chapter books with wide margins, making for less text per page (can be less overwhelming for many middle grade readers, despite the length of 375 pages)

This was an easy 5/5 for me on Goodreads, where the book has a 4.43 star rating. It has a 4.7/5 rating on Amazon. And while readers give it high praises, clearly the American Library Association loved it when it was named a 2021 Newbery Honor.

“It’s a novel—a stand- alone, no less—that seems to have it all: a sympathetic hero, a colorful setting, humor, heart, philosophy, and an epic conflict that relates the complexity and humanity of social justice without heavy-handed storytelling. Soontornvat deftly blends it all together, salting the tale with a dash of magic that enhances the underlying emotions in this masterfully paced adventure. An important book that not only shines a light but also shows young readers how to shine their own. Luminous.”

Booklist, (starred review

Check out this book trailer from the publisher to further tempt your readers!

Soontornvat, Christina. A Wish in the Dark. Candlewick, 2020.