Review of Punching the Air

Punching the Air
by Ibi Zoboi with Yusef Salaam; illus. by Omar T. Pasha
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    400 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-299648-0    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299650-3    $10.99

Sixteen-year-old Amal Dawud Shahid (who is African American) knows he didn’t throw the punch that left Jeremy Mathis (who is white) injured “so bad / that he can’t wake up / to tell the truth.” But Amal is nevertheless arrested and sent to trial. As this first-person verse novel begins, testimonies from witnesses are “like a scalpel / shaping me into / the monster / they want me to be.” Amal is found guilty and sent to a juvenile detention center, where he is thrust into a world of unspeakable danger and despair. Even in the direst of circumstances, though, there are moments of peace for Amal — through protection from fellow inmate Kadon and his crew, letters received from his crush, and his talents for poetry and the visual arts (Kadon calls him “Young Basquiat”); Pasha’s spare but evocative black-and-white illustrations are interspersed throughout. Zoboi and Salaam’s expert placement of lines on the page reinforces the harsh reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, with repeated visual and textual imagery of “squares…corners…boxes” reflecting Amal’s feelings of suffocation and frustration. However, as he reminds himself, “Amal means hope,” and the sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of this young man will have readers holding out hope until the novel’s end. An author’s note details Zoboi’s connection to and ultimate collaboration with Salaam, along with his history as a member of the “Central Park Five,” now the Exonerated Five.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Eboni Njoku
Eboni Njoku is a children’s librarian at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library Branch of the DC Public Library.

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