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

Title: Punching the Air

Author: Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Release Date: September 1, 2020

RATING: 5 Stars

Amal has a bright future. He is a talented artist and poet. Unfortunately, he must struggle against the biases his teachers and authority figures at his school hold toward Black students, like Amal. Amal looks past their prejudice and towards college. Yet, the discrimination he faces at his school pales in comparison to the systemic racism he encounters when he is embroiled in a fight amongst a group of white teenagers. When a near-fatal punch lands one white teenager in a coma, Amal is accused of throwing the punch and then convicted of attempted murder. Now, Amal must find a way to survive in a system designed to dehumanize, control, degrade, and worse. In a place void of hope, Amal clings to art to keep himself from sinking into a pit of despair and rage.

Punching the Air, a novel in verse by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, is remarkable. It brings the ugly stains of past injustice, such as the Exonerated Five (of which Yusef Salaam was part of), the Scottsboro Boys, and the Jena Six, to bear as it reveals the human cost of the racism that motivates miscarriages of justice still common today. Zoboi’s verse places the reader next to Amal – in his cell, in the mess hall, and in the common room. The intimate narration compels one to feel the sense of hopelessness that pervades amidst his circumstance and the hierarchy built that deliberately places Black men at its bottom. Zoboi’s evocation of slavery reinforces the truism that the past remains with us today. It connects present injustice to the systemic racism still embedded in society, policy, and institutions today. It exposes the racist roots of the criminal justice system and the extent to which they still pulsate with that racism. Readers will not be able to put Punching the Air down. It will carve a space in their hearts and minds. And it should because in bringing readers so close to Amal and his plight, the novel powerfully illuminates inequities, moves readers to consider the sinister implications of their persistence, and compels them to reckon with the racist systems perpetuating them in the modern day.

Punching the Air must be read. It is important. It is necessary. It is the past and the present. But it should not be the future. The novel offers countless opportunities to discuss timely, urgent issues that American society is grappling with at this very moment. Equally as important, it therefore offers an opportunity to discuss with young people how they can help deconstruct those racist systems and build a more just future. Amal’s story must be discussed, debated, and exposed, because the new perspectives it surely will provide can inspire young people to become agents of change, and the change they catalyze desperately needs to happen. It is long overdue.

Content Note: The novel contains explicit language that may not be suitable for all readers.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and publisher, Balzer + Bray, for an eARC of this book!

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of systemic racism, school to prison pipeline, and the criminal justice system.
  • Literature Circles – Use novel for small groups or choice reading with a variety of novels that address systemic racism and injustice.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading about themes of social justice and racism.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • School to Prison Pipeline
  • Scottsboro Boys
  • The Exonerated Five
  • Jena Six Case
  • Black Lives Matter Movement
  • Criminal Justice System
  • Justice System Statistics

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with Punching the Air. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Dear Martin by Nice Stone (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)

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