Book review | Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam


Authors: Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Genre: Young Adult, Poetry 

No. of pages: 386

Published on: 30th September 2020 

Published by: HarperCollins 

Format: Paperback 

My rating: ★★★★★

One fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighbourhood 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 Shahid’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.

The book starts out with Amal Shahid - a Black Muslim teen - being wrongfully incarcerated. His only crime was getting involved in a street fight and punching a white kid. From being bullied by the white prison officers to being manhandled in the name of 'restraining' - Amal has to face it all. Enraged with the discrimination and his inability to fight the system, Amal seeks solace in his art.

Heavily based on Dr. Yusef Salaam's real life events and many distubingly similar unfortunate incidents that recently set the world on fire, Punching the Air explores the discrimination, inhumanity, the pain, the fear, the dark side of being born Black. It's a metaphorical take on the unfairness of the world - how a person's skin colour defines if they deserve justice or not.

As the pages of the book are turned into Amal's poetry and art book, we get to experience his unfortunate journey both literally and visually. Amal's pain and suffering are too real. Reading this book gave me a heart ache. It's as if the book is shouting out to you. When Amal was thrown into the dark cell for stealing a few art supplies; when his only friend in prison is beaten up to a pulp by the white officers; when Amal's wall painting at the prison - his only way of expressing his voice - was wiped clean for being too 'dark' and political; when he received letters from the only girl he liked at school; when he broke down as he realized his dreams of attending art school would remain unfulfilled - each and every instance of Amal's life will break your heart.

The art in every page of the reflects Amal's emotions and feelings and that is one of the most wonderful thing about this book. The beautiful imagery is not only a descriptive aspect in the book but also interpretative in its own way. Meanwhile the poetry in the book is a masterpiece. The way it tactfully relates Amal's struggles and how he let down his mother, his regret about going out with the wrong friend on the unfateful day, his feelings for his school crush and his exasperation with his fate and the whole discrimination part - seems all too personal.

And not just discrimination, this book is an ode to art and its expression. Amal is an example of how art and its artist can can be misunderstood by the wrong people. This book celebrates art and how it is a strong canvas for human emotions and struggles. Art is the way of living, art is the celebration of life, and Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam has given us this book as a gift to tell us that.

Dr. Yusef Salaam was just fifteen when he was wrongly convicted in the “Central Park jogger” case, along with four other boys now known as the Exonerated Five. In 2002, after the young men spent years behind bars their sentences were overturned, and they were fully exonerated. Their story has been documented in award-winning film The Central Park Five and acclaimed Netflix series When They See Us. Yusef is now a poet, activist and inspirational speaker who lives in Atlanta, GA. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama, among other honors.

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, a New York Times bestseller. She is the editor of the anthology Black Enough. Born in Haiti and raised in New York City, she now lives in New Jersey.

I received a copy of the book in exchange of an honest and unbiased review. 


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