Punching the Air
Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Balzer + Bray
Published September 1, 2020
About Punching the Air
From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.
The story that I thought
was my life
didn’t start on the day
I was born
Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white.
The story that I think
will be my life
Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it?
With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.
As I read this book, I found myself needing to stop sometimes. I needed to take a moment and let some of the messages sink in rather than kind of buzzing past them to see what happened next.
First, I really liked Amal and especially the descriptions of his artwork. His relationships with his family and friends felt real and complex. His relationship with his mom got me the most, I think. It wasn’t the primary one in the story, but I felt like it was so nuanced and had all these layers of him growing up and her wanting to protect him but not being able to and knowing she couldn’t do that.
Honestly, that kind of layering and the way the characters’ emotions reach out and grab you fills every scene in this book. It’s vivid. It’s powerful. This is the kind of book that keeps you reading until late into the night and you wake up thinking about.
I thought it was powerful that the writers chose to write this story about a boy who isn’t 100% in the wrong place at the wrong time, never done anything wrong.
This isn’t a story about a white kid framing a black kid for something he didn’t do. It’s a story about boys in a fight and the gross imbalance between the way the system treats those boys based on the color of their skin.
At first, I wanted it to be more the former type of story. That makes it more comfortable. There’s a victim. There’s a perpetrator. The lines are completely clear. It’s simple. It’s comfortable.
But that kind of story would ignore the fact that none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We shouldn’t have to be perfect to be treated fairly and with respect and dignity.
I watched the relationships between Amal and his teachers and counselor in jail. It was heartbreaking how often they seemed like they meant well and yet caused him harm. Or they seemed like they didn’t really see him and weren’t aware of the effect their actions and words had on him. That really hit me hard, because it made me wonder how many times I’ve been that person– saying a well-meaning thing that’s deeply hurtful, or worse, harmful.
PUNCHING THE AIR highlights the fact that the disparities in our justice system don’t begin with an arrest. And they don’t end there, either.
I guess this book made me sit with those disparities and really look at how this hurts people and causes deep damage. The story is so accessible. You don’t have to be an expert to follow or understand. It doesn’t beat you over the head with politics or issues. The authors simply tell a powerful story about boys who made mistakes and how they’re treated afterward.
PUNCHING THE AIR is absolutely worth reading. I think fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds will really enjoy it, and I think everyone should read it.
Honestly, I feel like it’s really worth reading what Black reviewers are saying about PUNCHING THE AIR because they will be able to speak to things that I simply can’t. Here are a couple that I found really helpful:
Recommended for Ages 14 up.
Amal is Black and Muslim. His uncle is a Christian.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used frequently. Some racial slurs.
Amal has feelings for a girl who writes him letters. Someone makes a crude comment to him about her.
Some reference to Christian and Muslim prayer and traditions.
A few scenes describe fights between Amal and others. In one scene, an officer causes him to fall while his hands and feet are restrained, so that he gets injured.
In more than one scene, Amal’s artwork is destroyed as part of punishing him and devaluing him.
Note: I received a free copy of PUNCHING THE AIR in exchange for my honest review. This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support the costs of running this blog.