Review of Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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.

“There’s a stone in my throat, there’s a brick on my chest”

Punching the air is a powerful, poignant, yet ultimately devastating read. A stark portrayal of institutionalised racism in the US criminal justice system and beyond, the story is propelled forward by soul swelling verse and broad brush strokes. It’s a tough read throughout and often I had to stop and sit and really take in what I had just read. We follow Amal, a young black Muslim who pays the ultimate price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each step of his harrowing journey is beset by bias and judgement from a system which continuously sees him as less. From his “character witness” to the lawyer who just wants to get paid, everything is stacked against Amal who is portrayed not as a the child that he is, but as villain and a violent menace. There are many difficult sections to read, from the guard known as Tattoo (which is sickening) to the destruction of artistic expression; yet there are sections of hope. I found the discussion around mistakes and misgivings to be particularly important along with some small acts of kindness he experiences.

The story is not autobiographical and whilst Amal is very much the centre of his own story, it is clear from reading about the exonerated five that his story draws heavily from the experience of Dr Yusef Salaam.  I was aware of the original case involving the exonerated five, I had little in depth knowledge about it and I did spend time researching the case after reading which really brought home Amal’s words in a new way.

It’s only the second time that I have read a book wriiten in verse, and I felt that by writing in this medium it really stripped down the story to it’s rawest form, every word, every line filled with meaning; repeated phrasing morphing to reflect a different aspect of Amal’s journey. The layout is uneven at times drawing your eye awkwardly across the page which really heightened the shared sense of confusion and I was often moved to tears whilst reading. Thank you so much to Harper Voyager for sending me a finished copy of this book to review, it is one that will stay with me and one that I am sure I will read over again often.


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