There’s a lot of talk these days about “Own Voices” novels. It’s a term that refers to an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about his or her own experiences, from an authentic, lived perspective.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley didn’t live through World War I or II, like the characters of her earlier middle-grade novels. But her newest book for young readers, Fighting Words, tells a contemporary story about child sexual abuse, and Brubaker Bradley writes in her author’s note: “The first thing I want you to know is, it happened to me.”
Fighting Words is the story of 10-year-old Della and her big sister, Suki, who escape terrible circumstances and end up in foster care. We learn that the girls’ mom was incarcerated on meth-cooking charges, and that they lived for a time with her predatory boyfriend, Clifton. We learn, as Della pieces together her memories, that Suki endured years of abuse before some quick thinking landed Clifton in jail. “Sometimes,” Della explains, “you’ve got a story you need to find the courage to tell.”
It’s heavy material for a book intended for elementary-school readers, but it’s fierce and powerful and oh-so-necessary. Unfortunately, many children struggle with the issues raised in this novel, and they need to know they’re not alone. Rather than shielding her young readers, Brubaker Bradley offers an unflinching story about the trauma of sexual abuse and she arms them with tools to cope. Della learns about the concept of consent. She learns the importance of speaking up. She learns that people endure harrowing experiences and, with help, are able to heal. And she learns to trust and believe in herself.