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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yussef Salaam

February 28, 2022

Sixteen-year-old African-American Muslim, Amal Shahid, is not the type to get into a fight. Instead of fists, Amal stands up for himself with words. He has always been an artist and a poet, rebelling against his biased school system. However, while out skating with his friends one night, the boys encounter a group of white kids on their side of the street. Soon, an argument breaks out. Before anyone can react, Amal throws the first punch. The scene turns into a full-on fist fight before his eyes. The police arrest Amal on his way home, falsely claiming that he put a white boy, Jeremy Mathis, in a coma by hitting him with his skateboard. In reality, Amal ran away from the scene, forgetting the board in the chaos. The court finds Amal guilty of a crime  he didn’t commit. The black boy only threw one punch, but that was enough to convince authorities he was guilty of putting a white boy in a coma. As the book’s blurb says, “Boys being boys turns out to be true only when those boys are white.” Amal is then sent to prison, where his only escape and chance to fight back are his words.   

Beautifully created by Ibi Zoboi, a civil rights activist and novelist, and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam, Punching the Air moves audiences beyond the typical reaction to a reading experience. Each line of the novel is packed with incredibly strong diction, capturing Amal’s anger and sadness about his injustice in a way that is close to overpowering, which fits the narrative to a tee. 

Zoboi’s voice influences the novel in other ways, as well. Her unusual style of writing is unique because the verses are truly free to wander around the page, as readers will discover. Because this title is written in free verse, the pace of this read is quick. One of the main reasons I enjoyed this book was because of Zoboi’s effort to connect Amal’s artistic personality with the rest of the novel. Her words and art illuminate each page with Amal’s story, along with the beautiful cover design, which helps to bring Amal and his identity across. Readers can feel Amal’s raw despair in a way that is not common in most books: feeling every ounce of emotion that Zoboi pours into the pages. With every word, she lets Amal’s character come alive: bold, strong, and quick. Just like his pen. 

Zoboi gracefully intertwines the fight with the present, where Amal is sitting in jail unjustly. Using flashbacks (never spilling too many details), she helps unfold the story. I loved how Zoboi chose to write about the fight. She only drops in small details of what happened, which makes the beginning of this book suspenseful and mysterious. She does this in a way that not only keeps a reader turning the page, but also aware of the social injustice and that Amal is in the right. 

Although the genre is realistic fiction with a social justice focus, Punching the Air is different from any of its kind. Zoboi pours herself into Amal’s character, not afraid to cut any sugarcoating. This novel is real, with a shocking dose of authenticity that will have readers experiencing the action alongside the characters. Another feature that separates this book from others is the title. Zoboi made an effort to connect it to the characters in her novel: it’s a metaphor for Amal punching at the invisible walls around him, the walls that  try to hold back his words and imprison him. 

I would definitely recommend this novel for audiences who enjoyed books such as How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon and American Street by Ibi Zoboi. They would savor this fast-paced and stunning work of literature. People who don’t normally read free verse (like me) will love and appreciate what Ibi Zoboi has to offer. I personally rated this book a 9/10 because of the graceful diction and art that Zoboi incorporated into her novel. There is no doubt that this book was beautifully written, as Zoboi expertly crafted characters into realistic, raw, and imperfect human beings, whose emotions carried readers through her novel. I think that people who want to learn and read about these injustices will definitely benefit from reading this work of art.

Lilly Mae

Balzer + Bray, 400 pages


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