4.5 star, buddy review

Buddy 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

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.

Welcome to our newest buddy review for Punching the Air! Now this is a truly special one, a book in a category that neither of us really have that much experience in. What better way to explore a new genre than to do it together in a buddy review? This time, we thought it would be fun to have kind of in a mini Q&A format, to perhaps show off a bit more of our individual voices.

Punching the Air is a novel written in verse, although when I say novel here, I really mean it as more of a collection of poems, separated into three main sections, but each comprised of many individual short poems. Through these poems, the authors paint a sadly realistic story of a Black teenager, Amal, who gets put through the American prison system, and the perspectives and views from the inside looking out.

How was the structure and formatting in the book? Did you like it?

Fives: Not a question normally posed, but quite pertinent in this case. Here the authors really employed all sorts of techniques to create emphasis and meaning in their poems. There was good rhythm and flow, and the use of spacing and lines were well done. Another great element in this book was the use of concrete poetry, which uses a visual element to enhance the meaning or emphasis of a poem. For example, to describe being boxed in, the text is literally written in the form of little square paragraphs, symbolizing the actual boxing in of Amal’s freedom and humanity.

The authors also used repetition a lot, for emphasis, but also to show the change and growth of a motif as it came back each time. With each repetition the imagery became more powerful, and they would transform the motif a bit each time too, to indicate increasing pressure or weight. Overall, I really enjoyed all these elements that they put into the book. And the message of the book aside, the poems in itself are already powerful enough – which is really saying something.

Andge: I think this was something Fives mentioned in our discussion, but this is the only time I can say a book has made good use of their white space. While I can appreciate art and the overall look of the book, I really have to commend the writing. The repetition for emphasis when needed, the allegories and metaphors describing Amal’s every situation. Fives mentioned the boxing in. Amal also describes the friends around him in prison as Corners, protecting him but also acting as another form of repression.

Another example is the heavy weight that always chokes him and presses on his chest. We see how it progresses from a stone in his throat and a brick in his chest to a mountain and a building and then to a country and a city. We can understand and grasp what that sensation is like, as well as the its enlargement as situations make it harder and harder to to feel free. When Amal finally deals with some things that allow him to hope and breathe easier, we can feel it too as the stone in his throat and the brick in his chest drops away. These are only a few examples of the different lyrical tools the authors put to use to help us feel in Amal’s shoes – and it is absolutely brilliant.

What do you think about Amal’s character?

Andge: I liked Amal. He felt like a real kid, not just a made-up person, but someone who actually lived these experiences, felt these emotions. While I can’t say I have ever faced the level of injustice Amal and the other black kids he meet in juvie did, I am really seeing what this must be like. Not just relating to big issues like incarceration, but little micro aggressions such as failing art class. Art class. Is there a right or wrong in how one portrays art? In how one expresses their truth? Or is it only one perception, the white European view, that is correct?

The one issue I struggled with was Amal’s anger, particularly towards those in authority. I’m a rule follower so I don’t fully understand this feeling. And while I empathize with his lived experience that has shaped his distrust for anyone with authority – I was angry with him on a number of occasions where he was placed with people who acted like his judge and jury – a lot of the times he acted out his anger in ways that just made it worse for him. Sometimes it was directed at people he had just met, people who may not have deserved such anger, but was directed towards them because they were in authority or told him to follow a rule. Maybe it’s because I’m Asian and the lived experience taught us to be angry, but only on the inside, and never make a big scene in public. But I am learning, and this has been a unique experience to gain such insight.

Fives: I also enjoyed the realism of Amal’s character – although in a sense, the realism is the kind of the eye-opening part of the story. The fact that it’s so realistic and his problems are so unfortunately real, it really puts the issues we still face today in our society into perspective. It wasn’t just the prison system, it was definitely also the school system and Amal’s life even outside of these institutions. It really brings to light all the systematic equalities that exist just beyond the lens of the rose-coloured glasses that society and media tries to paint – and something people are quick to forget.

I totally agree with Andge on the point about Amal’s anger issues. Some of his decisions were truly irrational, and while I completely understand why he would feel that way, some of his actions, in my opinion, truly were not justified, and often did him more harm than good. But then again, what kind of human acts rationally all the time? Although I do concede that I do have more of a rebellious streak in me, I still really can’t justify some of Amal’s overreactions, and wouldn’t see myself doing the same things. That being said, I was never subject to the same treatment as him, and who is to say that I wouldn’t act the same, given the circumstances?

What are your thoughts on racism and the prison/justice system portrayed in Punching the Air?

Fives: Woof. This book really goes in depth into exploring just what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the bars. It doesn’t talk explicitly by listing out things, nor does it really provide commentary directly, but everything is so painfully clear from Amal’s perspective. While I’m no expert on the system itself, many things that Amal experiences in the book are definitely common plights that we hear about even in the news. It is truly heartbreaking to know that racism and inequality are still such a huge part of modern society. But in that sense, it is also a wake-up call that bystanders cannot just continue to observe quietly without consequence. I thought that the commentary on racism and the justice system in this book was very tastefully executed and enlightening. It really gave me lots to think and reflect on.

Andge: I remember watching the Netflix documentary 13th and it was the same kind of feeling as reading this book. They even address how the American Constitution has amended itself to allow for “slavery” to exist if one lost their rights by getting incarcerated. It is truly heartbreaking, leaving one nightmare just for another pair of lifelong shackles to be given to you. I agree that this topic was written tastefully. It doesn’t outright condemn and bash everything in the system, but you can see without there being a thesis statement that things need to change. I bookmarked so many of the poems, not just because of the beauty in how it was written, but because of the words and emotions behind the situation called me to see and listen to the plight of very real men and women out there. This book shouldn’t just be read and forgotten. Its words and images should hopefully stay with us long after its last pages are turned.

How do you feel about how Amal’s story ends? (No Spoilers)

Andge: First off, I did not expect it to end just there. I was flipping the page and realized, wait, this isn’t a new chapter, it ended there? Now that the ending has been able to sink in a little longer, I do like where it stopped. It’s the beautiful balance of realism and hope. It doesn’t make it out to be some fairytale that never happens in real life faced by real incarcerated black teenagers, but it also doesn’t leave an angry pit in your stomach and a bitter taste in your mouth. I think it summarizes what the whole story was always subtly telling us from the start: this is the reality, but it doesn’t have to be reality. Little butterflies of change (another beautiful metaphor used most often in this book) can change things out in the world, bit by bit, and whether we know its impact or not. It starts with us learning, and then it starts with us doing something about it.

Fives: 100% agree with Andge on the shock factor. I completely did not expect the book to end where it did. I also agree that I liked where it stopped. Reading through the whole book, and even in some of my discussions with Andge, we did wonder where the book would end – without giving too much away, let’s just say it was something neither of us ever mentioned. The ending was definitely a message of realism and hope. I appreciated that it was not really about what happened at the end, but rather about that the injustice exists at all and Amal’s journey along the way. This book really does serve to be a exemplar reminder why we must always continue our fight against systematic inequality, and how those oppressed can suffer simply by the rest of us saying nothing.

Comments on the Authors and Conclusions

Andge: I most of all love that this story was co-written by one of the Exonerated Five in the Central Park jogger case. While Amal is not Yusef, clearly Amal’s experience and his love for art that helps him deal with his terrible circumstances comes from him. This story is made all the more real because this isn’t something fantastical, dreamt out of someone’s mind as pure fiction. It’s real. It happened. It still unfortunately happens. And while this may seem like just a YA book, it has such impact and carries its knowledge and experience to so many, especially through beautiful poetry and art. In a time where it is so important to not just hear but listen and learn with one another, Punching the Air shines a light that all should see.

Fives: I usually don’t read such politically charged books, much less review them, usually for the fear of saying something slightly misplaced or slightly misunderstood. Still having read this one, there was truly so much to appreciate and respect that I am glad I did. The fact that an author with genuine experience being wronged by the system is able to be represented here in this story is surely at the very least cathartic and hopefully healing. Andge is right in that while it may just appear to be a YA book on the outside, this book cover truly does not even begin to skim the surface of the iceberg of knowledge and perspective that the book offers. I think I speak for the both of us when I say that I highly recommend this book, and I hope that you will all enjoy and learn something as we did by this experience.


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