[Book Review] Punching the Air // Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

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.

Punching the Air book in front of a bookshelf

I read every book written in verse that I can find because most of the time I adore them. They also aren’t really marketed as a genre; I’ve never seen a section in a bookstore dedicated to verse books, so whenever I stumble upon once I get excited.

Punching the Air tells the story of a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. It’s a story about racism as well as finding your passion, that thing that gets you through each day, no matter how difficult the day. For Amal Shahid, that’s poetry and art.

The book is cowritten by contemporary author Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated 5 who were wrongfully incarcerated for the rape of a white woman. Punching the Air does not tell the story of the Exonerated 5, but the central narrative seems to be inspired by and based on Salaam’s experience in prison.

This is a young adult book, and although sometimes when reading YA I can’t clearly tell that it’s YA, that was not the case with this book. It works brilliantly to share the story of wrongful incarceration and a young black man’s experiences behind bars. But, the story didn’t really do much beyond that for me. I enjoyed the illustrations in the book, and there were a lot of impactful passages, but overall the book is very forgettable. I wanted to connect with Amal, but I didn’t seem to be able to align with his emotional state.

Punching the Air opens with Amal in court being convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. The exact details of the crime were fuzzy to me, as the information was slowly parceled out throughout the book, but it seems Amal went with some friends to the rich white kid side of the neighborhood, where they were met with some bullies who picked a fight. One of the white kids wound up in the hospital, so his family pressed charges.

This book is a story of regret, but it’s also a clear story about situational repercussions. Amal was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and instead of having a bad day because of it (as is the case with a lot of privileged white people), he found himself convicted of a crime and placed in a correctional facility. Punching the Air works great as a guidebook on what not to do to get caught in the crossfires of a systematically racist government, and it’s a good cautionary text to hand to younger children on the cusp of their formative teenage years, but when you read the book as an adult, it is mediocre in terms of its emotional impact.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Balzer + Bray, September 1, 2020, 400 pages

CATEGORIES: YA, verse book, inspirational

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