Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
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.
This incredible novel in verse is definitely one of my top reads of 2020. The reality is that books about racism, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex will always be both timely and timeless. But, I do think that at this particular time in history, maybe more people than ever will be drawn to this story and open to really sitting with what they learn from what happens to Amal and how it affects him.
As Amal goes through a trial and then is sent to a juvenile detention center, readers see the many ways racism and racist systems and institutions have tried to break Amal his entire life. Amal is fully aware of the fact that he has rarely even been seen as just a kid, that his every move can be misconstrued as threatening, angry, guilty. He’s not seen as a boy but a man, a criminal, a stereotype. Hardly anyone sees the real him—not the teachers at his arts high school, not the judge, not the corrections officers. Charged with aggravated assault and battery (Amal admits to being in the fight, to throwing the first punch, but not the last, the one that landed a white boy in a coma), Amal has too much time to ruminate over the many ways life has already been a prison for him. As he moves through the system and eventually falls into the routine of his life in prison, he constantly thinks of slave ships, of shackles, of auction blocks, of no freedom. Amal shows readers how he’s been boxed in his whole life.
Perhaps no page is more moving, more devastating, than the one where, on the day of his conviction, Amal memorizes his inmate number, his crime, and his time, and forgets his school ID number, his top colleges, and his class schedule. Stripped of his humanity, Amal becomes just another number in the school-to-prison pipeline. We see people fail Amal again and again, but also, surprisingly, we see people really see him for who he is and push him to retain his identity (an artist, a poet) while in prison. These people include other inmates who appreciate his talents, a corrections officer who understands his need to create art, and a teacher who visits and tells Amal she’s a prison abolitionist.
A deeply moving, profound, and infuriating look at how we fail Black boys, at the miscarriage of justice, at racist systems, and so much more. An essential purchase.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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