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
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.
*I received an ARC of this novel via NetGalley and Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review – a huge thanks to them for sending me a copy*
Trigger warnings: wrongful imprisonment, wrongful conviction, physical violence, microaggressions, racism.
Punching the Air is a poignant novel written entirely in verse which explores the story of Amal, a young Black Muslim teen who is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. While I haven’t read any of Ibi Zoboi’s other works, I’ve heard wonderful things and after reading this book I’m definitely kicking myself for not reading her work before. I think most people will be familiar with Dr Yusef Salaam’s story, he is one of the Exonerated Five, and an incredible and inspiring man who advocates for prison reform and for racial justice. His personal experience of being incarcerated at a young age and wrongfully convicted permeates this book and it’s apparent that his experience informs Amal’s in the book and gives it so much more depth and realism. If you haven’t heard of his story, I would recommend doing some research, and also watching the Netflix series When They See Us which is a dramatisation about the Exonerated Five and their experiences.
I read this book over the course of a day and could not put it down, it was so moving, and delves into so much whilst still feeling very accessible. The novel speaks to and touches upon so many key issues such as the school to prison pipeline, the thirteenth amendment, the class divide in America, a broken education system and so much more.
Over the past few years, I’ve really gained an appreciation for novels which are in verse and this one is no exception. I’d love to check out the audiobook edition of this book because I feel like the style and certain scenes lend themselves very well to that medium. I found myself highlighting so many passages because the writing was just so good and so impactful. Amal’s voice feels so real at all times and you really get a sense of the full range of emotions he goes through, from denial to anger to despair to hope and joy. I also loved how Amal’s faith and musings about God and Islam were so beautifully expressed and the poetry of these parts touched me. I also feel like his voice reads very naturally and like an actual teenager, rather than what an adult thinks a teen sounds or acts like so nothing feels stilted or out of character.
I rooted for Amal and felt so deeply for him, especially as he tries to navigate the new reality he finds himself forced into. I loved that he had his art and poetry to turn to in his darkest moments and how it provides him with a positive outlet in an otherwise dire situation. Zoboi and Salaam also explore how even outside prison, Amal has been labelled and misunderstood, simply because he is a young Black man, for instance with his art teacher Ms. Rinaldi who testifies against him and dubs him ‘angry’. Amal’s frustration at this and his realisation that despite seeing him, she doesn’t really see him and will never understand his experiences or how they inform his art is so important and telling. I also enjoyed how his friendships with the other boys in prison – Kadon, Amir, Rah and Smoke – develop and how they all connect through his talent and love for art, they bond over a mural they paint together for instance and dub him ‘young Basquiat’.
While there are certainly some uplifting and hopeful moments in this book, it doesn’t shy away from exploring the very grim realities of being convicted of a crime and incarcerated as a young Black man. When Amal is sentenced, he is aware of how serious it is but nothing could possibly prepare him for the actuality of being imprisoned and how it will affect his spirit and mental health. On top of his actual processing and the personal impact on him and his family and friends, he also has to contend with violence from guards and his fellow inmates. One moment in particular sent chills down my spine where a guard deliberately shows Amal a very disturbing tattoo, which on the surface is despicable enough but I think this also speaks to how the system is corrupt on so many levels, from the upper rungs to the guards at all levels who harbour their own dangerous prejudices.
Overall, Punching the Air is an incredible book and covers so much ground, and is a needed and powerful addition to the Y/A contemporary genre as a whole. I struggle to think of anyone who can read this book and not be changed in some way as well as getting further insight into the devastating impacts of a system which is corrupted and unjust, and specifically how this disproportionately impacts Black men and women.
Until next time,
About the authors:
Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults 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, and Punching the Air with co-author and Exonerated Five member, Yusef Salaam. She is the editor of the anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America. Raised in New York City, she now lives in New Jersey with her husband and their three children.
A family man, father, poet, and activist, Yusef Salaam is committed to educating people on the issues of mass incarceration, police brutality and misconduct, false confessions, press ethics and bias, race and law, and the disparities in America’s criminal justice system, especially for young men of color.