On Book: ‘All the Fighting Parts’ Reads Fast, Hits Hard

A new young adult novel-in-verse champions survivors, brings empathy to the decision of whether to report, and delivers a compelling read with the art of a poet. 


All the Fighting Parts

Before and after a sexual assault, a teenager reclaims her distinctive voice.   
By Hannah V. Sawyerr
Abrams (Amulet) (2023); 400 pages  


How do you write a wrong? 

For debut novelist Hannah V. Sawyerr, the process was as contemporaneous as it gets. Right in the thick of the trial of her own assailant is when she chose to write the tale of Amina Conteh, the 16-year-old fictional character at the center of the YA novel, All the Fighting Parts, which came out last week.

For Sawyerr, the catharsis of letting her character’s words flow forth was also a victorious one. “It was totally an escapism, rewriting my own narrative” endeavor, Sawyerr explained at a book talk in Seattle last week. Both during the writing process and in speaking in public about her work and personal inspiration for it, “I let go of a lot of shame.” 

Hannah V. Sawyerr and Joy McCullough discussed Sawyerr’s new book at Third Place Books in Ravenna on September 21. Photo by Chase D. Anderson.

Because the world works well sometimes, Sawyerr, a slam poet and past Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate, found a remarkable fit of a writing mentor in Joy McCullough, a YA novelist and playwright, who coaxes out stories of young women who’ve been stripped of their voices throughout history. McCullough would become an early reader and reviewer of Sawyerr’s debut book. 

In an intimate conversation last Friday at Third Place Books, the two had an easy flow on wide-ranging topics: inspirations and drafting processes as writers; the business and process of writing and publishing; the finishing touches on All the Fighting Parts‘ title and cover art; and working with the unexpected (in which Sawyerr dished on a “scorched ARC giveaway,” a phrase she surely must have coined, when she accidentally singed two of her own advance reader copies on the stove). 

As for the book itself, Sawyerr’s novel-in-verse eschews any notion that poetry means flowery, or YA novel equals fluff. All the Fighting Parts pieces together a rich collage of high school experience in a series of tight lines. Many of its pages are self-contained vignettes, each a quick-reading masterwork of telling much with a few beautifully arranged words. It’s both a page-turner you can finish in a day and a series of verses you’ll want to spend much longer with.

Drawing inevitable comparisons to Elizabeth Acevedo’s triumphant The Poet X — because they’re both YA novels delivered in verse, because they’re about teenage girls forced to be tough, and because they’re compelling reads for Elder Millennials just as readily as their stated YA audiences — Sawyerr’s debut holds its own.  

Sawyerr writes with a purpose, but also writes the mundane of a day that tells a person’s story. She writes a high schooler that actually reads like a high schooler, with the immediacy of small transgressions, the sharpness of injustice, the smallness of contracting inward from the ultimate betrayal. The maturity of knowing too much, too young. 

A private conversation about my now-public business

All the Fighting Parts‘ flow is propulsive, its delivery poetic and lyrical. Its story is ever-present, specific, and widely felt. It’s a tale ripped from the headlines, ripped from your neighborhood church, ripped from the experience of the person sitting next to you. But the beauty of its verses is nothing you’ll find in the newspapers.

The story is told from Amina’s view, with a few short interjections (police report excerpts, text exchanges, news clippings, and the comments section) to get a flavor of the voices around her. But it looks outward more than you’d think, with the community around her (for better or worse) giving a better sense of her own journey. It also leaves a tantalizing door open to some spin-offs: the perspective of “Holy Holly,” whose journey toward finding her own voice took a different but familiar path; and the tale of Amina’s too-soon-deceased mother, from whom she’s derived others’ expectations and none of the memories.

But for now the tale is Amina’s, and it’s a bright one.

You inherited all the fighting parts of your mother

With this may you shine a light


All the Fighting Parts is available at booksellers, including Third Place Books ($20); book info here

Find NWT’s review of Joy McCullough’s 2023 YA novel, Code Red, here

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.