Review – Punching The Air

What is up my book nerds, I’m back. I’m posting two days in a row! What kind of magic is this?! See, I told you I had more time now and could actually write things again!

The lovely people at Harper (Thank you so much, you’re all babes) sent me an ARC of Punching the Air by Ibi Zoloi and Yusef Salaam, which I finished this week and boy oh boy did I need to write down my thoughts on it!

Ibi Zoboi is a poet, and YA author, who approached Yusef Salaam after following his trial through the press. Salaam is a member of the Exonerated Five, one of the men tried and convicted for playing a part in the Central Park attacks of 1989 despite there being no conclusive evidence, and used the six years he spent in a detention centre as the basis for Punching the Air.

Punching the Air is a novel in verse, and follows Amal Shahid, a teenager who is sent to a juvenile detention centre for his involvement in a fight that left another boy in a coma: the core of this though is that Amal is Black and the boy in the coma, Jeremy Matthis, is white, and that Amal is very much innocent. The novel follows trial, conviction, and incarceration, and then on to his experiences in jail. I say jail because, even though it is a juvenile detention centre, it is always referred to as ‘jail’ and really, there is no difference.

Amal’s story is told through snapshots, bouncing between the present, slowly sharing more details about his life, his aspirations, and the events that led up to his arrest. It’s not always easy to read. It isn’t meant to be. From the courtroom, to visits with his mother, solitary confinement, the “conversations with God” that is the white woman put in charge of “reforming” the inmates, a fight between two groups that ends in lockdown and poetry sessions with a visiting activist, each scene gives us more insight into Amal, into his journey and experience, and into the way an American jail operates. There is balance, though, and the darkness is given breaks where light can shine through, like letters from his crush, Zenobia, getting through to him, poetry sessions with Imani, the visiting activist who wants to try and inspire the inmates through art, and the group of friends he finds within the walls of the prison.

The whole story flows in the verse form it’s written in, with some incredibly clever and beautifully formed pieces that play on the layout on the page, as well as how they’d sound, and reflect Amal’s character and skill as a poet within the book. The form of the poems also show off his skill as an artist, the words painting the pictures that he describes on the pages, like the mural he paints in the visiting room or the vile tattoo on one of the correction officers arm’s. Every word is considered and perfectly deployed.

I loved this book, but it also made me feel so uncomfortable because I know that, as white guy, I would never have been subject to anything that Amal is put through. I could shrug it off because my skin colour gives me protection without me even having to try. That is so fucked up.

Punching the Air should be required reading, not just because it’s a fantastic example of a narrative told through verse, but because it is SO important as a message of truth and how jail is in the US for Black people. I loved it, although that feels like the wrong word to use, because of how much it challenged me to look outside my own experience, and highlighted how different life is when you aren’t born with the inherent privilege of white skin.

(Note – if you want to know why I’ve capitalised Black through this and not white, have a look at this article here.)

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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