Best known for her historical fiction, Newbery Honor author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written her first contemporary novel in 13 years. Fighting Words is the powerful story of sisters Della and Suki, who are dealing with the consequences of their stay with their mother’s abusive boyfriend Clifton. After being placed in the care of gruff foster mother Francine, 10-year-old Della learns to use her “big mouth” to stand up for herself, while 16-year-old Suki begins to unravel. Bradley spoke with PW about the importance of providing young readers with a mirror, her inspiration for the book, and her next novel.
The novel’s tough subject matter, which is unflinchingly handled, is frequently under the purview of young adult, not middle grade. Why was it important to you that Della, who is 10 and in fourth grade, and your audience, was middle grade?
I think because I feel like we are starting the conversations with kids too late. According to the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused by the time they’re 18. So I think if we start with YA we’re starting the conversation too late.
The book follows both the macro assault of what happened to Suki and Della at Clifton’s hands but also the micro assault with Trevor and the things that the girls are having to deal with in school. And they don’t know how to stop it and they kind of don’t know that they’re allowed to. I think that is super, super common. Clearly if you’re a child and you’re being abused by an adult, you don’t have any power in the situation and you’re not necessarily going to get the thing to stop without adults. Sometimes we get this sort of rosy idea of how children’s lives are and that’s not the reality for an awful lot of kids, so we need to be speaking to all of them.
Della’s friend Nevaeh lends her a book that is important to her because it reflects her reality: “I was glad to know it didn’t only happen to me.” What are you hoping young readers will take away from Fighting Words?
It was definitely a very deliberate thing. The book is How to Steal a Dog. When you normalize this for one kid, that you’re not the only person this has happened to, you can understand that there's not something sincerely wrong with you. Because that’s how a lot of abused kids feel: it must be their fault. They must have done something horrible. They don’t know but they're filled with pain so that they can’t talk about it and that keeps them from getting help. So it’s the same thing—it’s not something for Nevaeh to be ashamed of, that she had to spend a night in the car —it wasn’t her fault, but you know you need to accept that, though, so that your family can go on.
I founded a nonprofit that gives out books to low-income kids and one of the books on the list is One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, about a kid in foster care. And they said after the first year: “Please keep that book on your list. A student said, “I didn’t know they ever wrote books about kids in foster care.” He was in foster care, and for the first time seeing his life reflected in that book was tremendously meaningful to him and that’s the thing I’m trying to do.
Fighting Words and one of your previous novels, The War That Saved My Life, share similar found family structures: two siblings escaping difficult circumstances with a single woman. What draws you to that family makeup?
I didn’t sit down to do that in this one. The War That Saved My Life was a little more intentional because I thought that book through a lot before I started writing it, [but] I really didn’t plan Fighting Words at all. I was in the middle of another book, and I just got to the point where I was really angry with the stuff that kept coming up on the news and all of the #MeToo. I had a moment where I just sat down and started writing. When I got up at the end of the second day, I had 39 pages with a narrative arc that I had absolutely no idea where it came from. And it really did start out with the name Nevaeh Roberts. I did no preplanning—boom—and so really I don’t think I have anything deliberate at all in that structure. That’s how it came out. It might’ve been just because it worked so well for me the first time.
Della’s foster mother, Francine, repeatedly tells Della that people’s stories are their own to tell. Why do you think it is important to have ownership of one’s story?
Oh, I think that’s something that took me a while to learn growing up, because I am naturally a storyteller. If I heard a fabulous story, I’d think, oh I could tell that, but you have to be careful if you’re talking about real people. And it’s one of the reasons I am very reticent about talking about any of my personal background that relates to this book because it’s not only my own story. And there’s no way I can tell it without telling other people’s stories and they’re not in a place to tell them yet, or to have it told. And so if you go around and tell someone else’s story when they’re not ready to tell it, you’re doing them harm. And you’re taking away both the person’s safety and you’re also taking away their getting to have the experience of telling their story. And both of those I think are wrong.
According to an article in the New York Times, you started writing this book after “reading a barrage of reports of sexual assault and harassment” and becoming angry that little had changed since your childhood. What do you want to change with this book?
I want people to quit doing it! When I hear that one in six boys is affected, that’s a lot of people. Because I am starting to talk about this, I hear a lot more stories and it’s equally horrifying that the boys feel even more ashamed of talking about it. Because nobody is talking about it, you have people believing that it didn’t happen or it wasn’t like that and so it perpetuates this culture where people get away with it. We have to start believing the people who talk about these things and we have to start taking it seriously right off the bat. The part with Trevor snapping [girls’] bras or pinching fat if they weren’t wearing bras yet, that happened to me.
I was on a panel with seven writers, who are all women, all about my age, and the only one of us whom it hadn’t happened to is the one who grew up in Pakistan. And all of them were humiliated by it, and all of them hated it. And yet at the time, teachers just blew it off. I don’t know why, but they did. So I want that to stop. I want all of this stuff to stop.
Your previous middle grade novels are historical; how does writing contemporary fiction compare to period fiction?
I think the biggest thing is that the research you do is different. The new one is set in my hometown, and that was actually kind of fun for me to be able to do. It was the first book where I really think that I got the feel of Appalachia in it. It’s more the starting place that is different than anything else. In this case I heard Della as a contemporary voice in my head and I started writing her story and then filled in the research later. A lot of times, for historical fiction, I’ll do it the opposite [way], where I’ll find something that’s historical that intrigues me and research about the subject and then gradually start to get a character and a situation that works in that setting. So historical fiction is a little more setting-driven than the contemporary.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a book that’s historical fiction again, but it’s also a ghost story. It is set during World War II at a castle called Chenonceau, which has been owned by different queens of France. What’s intriguing about Chenonceau is that it was built over a river; it was sort of a mill house, and they extended a bridge across the river. Out the back of the castle they built two long galley rooms on top of that bridge, so the castle becomes a bridge. The front door is on one side of the river and the back door is on the other. In World War II, that river was the dividing line between Vichy France and occupied France, and they were using the castle to smuggle people to safety from the Nazis. I combined that with the ghost of Catherine de’ Medici, who was the most famous owner of the castle.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Dial, $17.99 Aug. 11 ISBN 978-1-9848-1568-2