Cover Reveal of Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Newbery Honor-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and her editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, Jessica Garrison, introduce Kimberly’s newest middle grade novel, FIGHTING WORDS, a candid and fierce story about sisterhood and sexual abuse.
JG: Kim, it has been extraordinary working on this novel with you. Della came at me like a lightning bolt in paper bag—thirty-nine pages of unstoppable heart and voice, bursting from this tough but tender ten-year-old girl. Her unblinking candor, her warmth, her capacity for love, her perfect comic timing, and her deep, deep hurt was something the world—kids specifically—needed to see. Thank you for writing Della’s important story. I’m grateful to have been on this journey with you, as you turned that first thirty-nine-page lightning strike into the full heartache, heart-swell, and fist-pump that is Fighting Words.
KBB: Della came to me like a lightning bolt in a paper bag—I completely did not anticipate her story. I’d been working on another historical novel, as you know, and while I was in between drafts of it, I sat down to my computer and pounded out those thirty-nine pages in two days. I’ve been writing for over thirty years and never had that happen before. Della’s story needed telling, and somehow she picked me to tell it—and aren’t I grateful! Your support, Jess, and Dial’s, has meant the world to me.
JG: Thanks, Kim. We’re so proud to publish this. FIGHTING WORDS is a middle grade novel about many things: sisterhood, found family, friendship, finding strength in oneself. It’s also, notably, a middle grade novel about child sexual abuse and attempted teen suicide. Why was important to you to write about these topics for kids as young as ten years old, the age of your (absolutely marvelous) heroine, Della?
KBB: I think the culture of silence around sexual abuse is part of what’s allowed it to become so prevalent in our society. It wasn’t until very recently, when sexual abuse survivors—among them, me—began speaking out, that it became something you heard about at all. Sexual abuse impacts far more children than most people realize, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages ten to fourteen. I hope that by putting these issues into words children read, all children will learn they are allowed to talk about them, too. Those impacted by abuse and mental health issues won’t feel so isolated, and we’ll be able to get survivors the help and resources they need. Like all adults, I want to protect children. Silence perpetuates harm.
JG: I’ve heard people talk about FIGHTING WORDS as a departure from the novels you’ve written in the past, such as your Newbery Honor-winning THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE and its acclaimed sequel, THE WAR I FINALLY WON. Do you agree with this take?
KBB: Not really. It’s just that I’m much better known for my last three novels, all of which were historical, than the eight which preceded them. I have other contemporary novels. I will say that Ada and Della would understand each other very well; FIGHTING WORDS certainly has a lot of similarities to my WAR books.
JG: There’s an important character in FIGHTING WORDS, Trevor, a boy in Della’s fourth-grade class. Why were you sure he needed to be part of Della’s story? Is this a novel as much for boys as it is for girls?
KBB: Every story I write is as much for boys as for girls. Trevor is important because he harasses Della and her classmates in a way that isn’t criminal, but still very much needs to be stopped. When children feel like they can’t draw boundaries over small things, it’s much harder for them to draw boundaries over big ones. Standing up and saying, “You do not have permission to touch me,” is something every child needs to be able to do.
JG: When did you know that this novel wasn’t just about Della’s experience but about her sixteen-year-old sister’s experience of child sexual abuse? Why did you still choose to tell the story from Della’s perspective?
KBB: I knew it from the very beginning. But my choice of narrator didn’t feel much like a choice. Della’s voice just poured out of me; she was unstoppable. At the same time, if I put this into Suki’s point-of-view, I’d have a YA novel, and I wanted to write, primarily, for middle grade readers. Despite all that she’s endured, Della is still fairly innocent.
JG: Some readers may want to draw comparisons between Susan, Ada’s adoptive mother in your WAR books, and Francine, Della’s foster mother in FIGHTING WORDS. Do you think it’s an apt comparison?
KBB: Probably. But I came at the two characters, Susan and Francine, from very different angles. Susan always had a backstory that equipped her to deal with Ada, who wasn’t going to be an easy child. Francine started out as somewhat indifferent, but, because she always seemed real to me, she grew more caring as I continued working on the story.
JG: Despite the story’s honest and incisive handling of very tough topics, I found myself laughing out loud many more times than I expected. For me, these moments were like emotional ballast—a needed release and relief. Was it a choice to make Della so winning and funny? Was it hard? Could the story have worked otherwise?
KBB: If the story didn’t have lighter moments, it would be such a slog! No one wants that. But writing Della wasn’t difficult. I don’t know why. From my very first, very rough draft, she completely cracked me up. The first page of the novel is nearly unchanged from the very first sentences I ever wrote. That’s rare.
JG: One of the story’s biggest themes is about finding one’s voice, sharing experiences, speaking out individually and together. Do you hope teachers, parents, librarians, and advocates for children will use Della’s story to start much-needed conversations with kids?
KBB: Very much so! I think there’s a certain tendency among adults to romanticize childhood, to believe that horrible things are so vanishingly rare it’s better not to speak of them. Our best estimates say that one in four girls and one in six boys in this country will be sexually assaulted by age eighteen. Being sexually assaulted increases the chance that a child will attempt suicide thirteen-fold, and nearly one in five teens have contemplated suicide. My publisher has worked with public school teachers and educational consultants to create some really useful classroom discussion questions, which are included in the ARC. However we do it, we MUST talk about these things. We MUST let children know they aren’t alone.
JG: Do you see the readership for FIGHTING WORDS as limited to your middle-grade audience? (This is a leading question. Truthfully, I cannot wait to give this novel to my nearly-twelve-year-old niece, my forty-year-old husband, and my seventy-year-old mom, and everyone else I know. My son is only five, but I promise you, he will be reading FIGHTING WORDS one day.)
KBB: Trust me, I hope absolutely everyone in the world wants to read it. 😊 More seriously, I think that while some books can be above an age-range—I forbade my daughter from reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE until she was old enough to find it funny—I don’t think well-written books are ever below anyone’s age range. I hope FIGHTING WORDS will entertain readers of all ages, as well as make them think.
JG: Why did you choose the title, FIGHTING WORDS?
KBB: Because words, and truth, are the best weapons we have.
JG: What haven’t I asked that you’d like people to know about this novel?
KBB: That no one needs to be afraid of it. Parts are hard. Parts are scary. Hope and love bear out.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley lives on a forty-two-acre farm in Bristol, Tennessee. She is the author of several middle grade novels, including the widely acclaimed Jefferson’s Sons and the New York Times bestsellers The War I Finally Won and The War That Saved My Life, the latter of which earned a Newbery Honor and a Schneider Award.