Monday, September 7, 2020

Punching the Air

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. Grades 7+ Balzer + Bray. 400 pages. Review audiobook provided by and HarperAudio. 

Amal didn't do what they said he did. Yes, he was there in the park. Yes, he threw the first punch. But he didn't throw the punch that landed a white boy in the hospital and landed himself in prison. Now, at sixteen, his life feels like it's over before it began as he's taken from his family and stuck behind bars. He's so angry that he doesn't know what to do. But when he starts to turn to poetry and art, he starts to have hope. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? 

This is a powerful novel in verse that is a great choice for teens and adults interested in social justice. It's written by YA superstar Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam - a member of The Exonerated Five, a group of five teen boys who were convicted of assaulting and raping a white female jogger in Central Park and serving their sentences before being exonerated when another man confessed to the crime.  This isn't a memoir, it's a fictional story, but it's based on the author's experience in prison. 

The imagery is so striking in this novel - near the beginning of the story the authors compare the handcuffs placed on Amal with the shackles of enslaved people and I can't get that image out of my head. When Amal is meeting with adults who run the prison (his counselor, etc.), the poems are titled "Conversations with God". There is so much to unpack here and although I listened to the book on audio, I know it's one I will be revisiting in print to discover more of its layers. It's a testament to the power of art to heal as Amal turns to art and poetry to deal with the anger he feels over what's happened to him. 

I would hand this book to fans of Walter Dean Myers or Jason Reynolds, readers interested in social justice and the criminal justice system. Run, don't walk, to buy this book for your library or classroom.