In Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, 10-year-old protagonist Della gives readers a front row seat to her daily life in foster care with her 16-year-old sister Suki who has been her main caregiver since she was born. Their life hasn’t been easy—with their birth mother far away, incarcerated for drugs, and a series of traumatic experiences with their guardian.


Suki is Della’s forever protector—but she’s under a lot of pressure, so during a decline in her mental health, Suki tries to end her life. When this happens, Della tries to become Suki’s protector, but she soon realizes that kids aren’t supposed to be “fixing” other kids—that’s what parents should be for. When their social worker visits, she constantly asks the sisters for their goals for the future, but Della and Suki have never been able to dream because they’ve been in survival mode since birth.


During Women’s History Month, so many famous people get recognized, especially adults. This story reminds readers that it’s not always women who do incredibly hard and challenging things, but also the youth who fight every day to become someone, and who deserve a chance for happiness and success. Della shares her story, learning more and more of Suki’s along the way.


Later in the book, Suki comes home with a semicolon (;) tattoo to represent a pause to remind her that like in a sentence, or in life, you sometimes have to pause and then continue going to find your way and let yourself heal. Della ends up getting an ampersand (&) tattoo after, and so does Suki to symbolize their forever connection. Della & Suki.

Next day, Suki came home with a tattoo.

            It was on the same wrist she cut, right beside her scar. It was a semicolon, a piece of punctuation that looks like this: ;

            “You use semicolons when you don’t want to use a period,” Suki said. Her eyes were sparkling. “This is to remind myself. My sentence—my story—it’s going to keep going on.”

            Okay, that was cool.

            “You wanted me to do more,” she said. “To make promises. Here it is. The best promise I can make right now. Anytime I look at my wrist, I won’t just see what I almost did. I’ll see what I’m about to do—keep going.” (226–227)


Mini Lesson:

  • Read the excerpt above about Suki’s tattoo. Lead a discussion about symbols and what some stand for. (Examples: colors, animals, punctuation, cultural symbol interpretations, song lyrics, etc.)
    • Many symbols hold importance to people’s lives, no matter their age. Those symbols sometimes change over time, but some stay relevant forever. In Della and Suki’s instance, the punctuation marks ; and & represented them, a symbol of hope and of survival, and also “an expectation for something more to occur.” (256)

  • After discussing some popular symbols in society, have students think about their life and experiences. What is a symbol that represents them or means a lot to them? Why does it represent them? Have students journal this independently and draw the symbol.
    • It could be a punctuation mark like the book, or others such as animals, words, cultural symbols, etc.
    • Encourage students to do some research online about what symbols represent such things, just like Suki and Della did with the semicolon and ampersand.

  • Have students do a Gallery Walk to show the class their symbol. If students would rather keep it private, allow them to do so, but still take part in the Gallery Walk to view other students’ symbols.



Jennifer Epping is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a passion for reading, writing, and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her ninth year teaching. Epping graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York.