Book Review: “Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

This was a really interesting book, and one that is taking me a little longer than usual to process my feelings about. It had so many important themes and was beautifully written in verse, but there was something that left me feeling a little disconnected from the story as a whole. Regardless, it’s still one that is well worth reading and one that I would recommend to any teen or adult reader.

Spoiler-Free Review: “Punching the Air” is a YA novel-in-verse that follows Amal, a black and Muslim teen boy who is wrongfully convicted of a crime that he did not commit. It follows his experience as he is locked up in a juvenile detention center and how he faces a variety of challenges (both internal and external). While the poetry is exquisitely written, I felt a sense of disconnect from the characters and overall story. I could feel the bigger feelings that Amal was experiencing (anger, fear, injustice, hope, hopelessness, etc.), but never really felt like I knew him on a deeper level. There were many instances in which I was confused by his reactions to certain situations, or times in which I wasn’t sure of how I was supposed to interpret a character or their actions. I think this story may have been more impactful when listened to as an audiobook (although this would mean missing out on some of the illustrations and visual characteristics of the poetry). In general, though I felt disconnected at times, this is still a really important and unique story that I would recommend without hesitation.

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. If you’re wanting to avoid any spoilers, you are welcome to jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page if you’d prefer!

“Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Image result for punching their air book cover
  • Year of Publication: 2020
  • Genre: YA Fiction
  • Summary:

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

starts today

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.

TRIGGER WARNING: Violence. Language. Use of the “N” word. Prison/Juvenile detention center visits. Solitary confinement.

Format: Hardcover

Themes: Find your voice and use it to spread your truth (THE truth). Art is powerful. Don’t make yourself small to fit in the box society tries to put you in. Small actions can have big consequences. Hope can be found even in the darkest of times.

Character Development: This is where I felt the novel was lacking, but I can’t quite pinpoint why. Normally with stories told in verse, you get to know the narrator on a more intimate level, but with this story I just felt really disconnected from Amal. I never really felt like I fully understood him and what he was going through. The minor characters seemed somewhat two-dimensional as well. The character I felt the most for was Umi, Amal’s mother.

Plot/Pacing: The pacing with novels-in-verse is always really quick, which was helpful because I did feel like the structure of the actual plot was off. It starts with Amal’s trial, which I found difficult to connect with because I didn’t know him or his situation at all. The rest of the story takes place in the juvenile detention center. I was expecting there to be an epilogue or something at the end showing the aftermath of his wrongful conviction, but the ending was kind of abrupt and unsatisfying. It ended on a hopeful note at least, but I still wanted to know more and I think it would have been powerful to see more explicitly how our messed-up judicial system can affect people for years to come.

Writing Style: The writing style was the strongest part of this book for me. The poetry is stunning, and the illustrations and formatting of the poetry really enhance the writing. I especially loved the imagery of Amal being put in a box and being cornered, as well as the butterfly effect and the symbolism of butterflies.

“Bingeability”: Moderate. Due to how it’s written in verse, it’s a quick read (I think I read the final 2/3 of the book in one sitting). However, due to the disconnect I felt with the story and the characters, I didn’t always want to sit and read it for that long. Therefore, the bingeability was only moderate.

Emotional Investment: Moderate. Again, I’m going with moderate because the poetry itself packs an emotional punch and the overall topic of wrongful conviction is inherently emotional. However, as I’ve said previously, there was a strange disconnect that I felt with the characters and the story as a whole. I can’t quite figure out why, but I just never really felt like I knew any of the characters, which made it difficult to feel emotionally invested in the story.

Windows and Mirrors: Black boyhood/manhood. Wrongful conviction of a crime. Single mother. Juvenile detention centers. The healing power of art. Racism (individual and systemic).

Overall Thoughts: While I did have some qualms with this book that affected my enjoyment of it, I still think it’s an incredibly important and worthwhile story. I’ve never read anything like it, but that lack of literary and media representation isn’t reflective of the real world. What happened to Amal in this story is happening all the time in our country, and it’s absolutely unacceptable. I’m glad that this book was written and that it was written for a young adult audience because it is truly so important to start these conversations with young people. Also, the authors’ notes at the end of the book made up for a lot of the lack of emotional impact of the story. Reading about their experiences and purposes for writing this novel was really impactful. So if you decide to read this, make sure you read to the very last page!

On a slightly unrelated note, this book reminded me a lot of the novel Monster by Walter Dean Meyers. Many of the themes were similar, though this novel was actually written as a script/screenplay rather than in verse! I had some qualms with this book as well, but I’d still recommend it as related reading!

Recommendation: Yes, I absolutely recommend this book. Although I may not have personally enjoyed this one as much as others that I have read recently, I’m still so glad that I read it. It’s an important story that should be read by teens, adults, and teachers alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TL;DR:
Year of Publication: 2020
Genre: YA Fiction
Summary: 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. 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?
TW: Violence. Language. Use of the “N” word. Prison/Juvenile detention center visits. Solitary confinement.
Themes: Truth. Finding your voice. Art. Butterfly effect. Hope.
Character Development: Never felt connected to main character.
Plot/Pacing:
Quick pacing due to poetry, but awkward structure of plot.
“Bingeability”:
Moderate.
Emotional Investment:
Moderate.
Windows and Mirrors:
Black boyhood/manhood. Wrongful conviction of a crime. Single mother. Juvenile detention centers. The healing power of art. Racism (individual and systemic).
Overall Thoughts:
Struggled with emotional disconnect with characters and story. However, incredibly important story. Beautifully written. Impactful authors’ notes at the end.
Recommendation: Yes
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: