Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Blurb: Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in his diverse art school, because of a biased system he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated. Then, one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighbourhood escalates into tragedy. ‘Boys just being boys’ turns out to only be true when those boys are white. Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal 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?

Title: Punching the Air

Author: Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s, an imprint of Harper Collins

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Slam Poetry


Amal’s self expression lies in his art and his poetry. But one fight back in school earned him the reputation of an aggressive and disruptive person. When a fight breaks out between his friends and some white kids from a nearby neighbourhood, Amal gets the blame for a crime he didn’t commit. This was never meant to be his story but is there a way he can use his talents to change it?

I’ve been meaning to read this book for the longest time and after falling in love with slam poetry in The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, this book only made me appreciate this style more. The poems that make up this story are written with a lot of emotion and quickly had me rooting for Amal. I’d also point out that if you’re worried about this style not conveying a story as well as the traditional chapter style, I was still able to immerse myself in Amal’s story with ease. To add to that, by using slam poetry we are able to bypass filler scenes and concentrate on the most important aspects of what’s going on. I also really appreciated that Amal’s character was three dimensional. We got to see a young man who might have gotten into a fight or two but loves art, someone who clashes with a teacher who doesn’t understand him but has a huge amount of love for his family and friends. Well fleshed out characters really drive a story and this one certainly did that.

This book is also based on a true story. One of the authors, Yusef Salaam, is one of the Exonerated Five (from the Central Park Jogger case in 1989). While the authors take care to mention that this book is not Salaam’s story, his experiences of turning to art and poetry had a big influence on the final book. The authors’ note also mentions that some of the poems were those that Salaam wrote during his time in prison which I thought lent a huge amount of heart to the story. I appreciate the bravery it takes to share a story like this and thank Salaam for helping to educate a new generation via literature.

As for what I disliked, I can’t fault this book or the way in which it’s written. All I’d say is that I did want a touch more closure at the end to see what would happen to Amal. Now, I’m aware that it isn’t always the case that things like this are all wrapped up neatly but I felt so much for this character and so desperately wanted some justice for him. I’d also point out that this ending does serve as a reminder that there’s rarely a good ending in these situations and that more work must be done.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone. It’s a worthwhile read whether you can put yourself in Amal’s shoes or not and acts as a reminder for white readers that injustice is still very much alive in our society and simply watching won’t change that.

Rating: 5/5

Recommend?: Yes!

Have you read this book? Or maybe you’ve read something similar? What did you think? I’d love to know!

You can always find me over on Twitter if you’d like to discuss this book (or any others that I’ve featured) in more detail 😌

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3 thoughts on “Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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