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Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Publisher’s Book Description:

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

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.

Karen’s Thoughts:

When I read a book, I can’t help but read it with multiple hats. One hat is me, a person who reads for pleasure and enlightenment. The other hat is me, a librarian who serves teens. Although both recognize a good book, the reasons are often not the same. This is a great book, for all of the reasons.

Told in verse, this is a quick but moving read. Poetry was the exact perfect form for this novel. It captures the essence of this far too common tragedy and related it in stirring, beautiful verses that have perfectly chosen words, format and sometimes even visuals. As I read it I couldn’t help but think of what a perfect book this would be to help teach kids about poetry.

This is also a powerful story about the healing and expressive powers of art. That is one of my favorite topics.

This is also a story that has a Muslim main character and talks about things like prayer, belief and family. Although there is growing Muslim representation in YA lit, it is very few and far between and under-represented.

This is also an insightful look into juvenile incarceration. At one of my library jobs I used to visit a juvenile detention center and have always felt that there should be more YA that investigates the life of teens behind bars, wrongly convicted or not. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is another book on this topic that hopefully everyone has read. We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss is a recent book that looks at a teen who is not only incarcerated but on death row.

That is the librarian hat.

As a reader, this is a moving, powerful and important book. I’m actually old enough to remember the Central Park Jogger case and have been following the story of the Exonerated Five for some time. I recently saw Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam talk about this book as part of the SLJ Summer Teen virtual event. And as our nation, our world, continues to wrestle with topics of racism, policing and incarceration, this is a much needed entry into that discussion made all the more powerful because of the very true perspective that Yusef brings to the narrative.

This book is moving, powerful, thoughtful and important. It’s profoundly well written and emotionally impactful. It is without a doubt a must have for all and will be a classic. Highly recommended. You will be moved by the story of Amal and his efforts to keep hope in a system that is designed to steal it from you.

Releases tomorrow, September 1, 2020, by Balzer + Bray

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