Review Blog

Sep 22 2020

Punching the air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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HarperCollins, 2020. ISBN: 9780008422141.
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. Amal's name means hope, but it is hard to feel hope when you are a black kid that has been hauled in for street fighting, and there is white kid in a coma in hospital. Amal knows that he has already been shaped into a monster in people's minds, and it doesn't matter what he says. He is innocent, but everything is stacked against him.
The story is fictional but draws on the lived experience of co-author Yusef Salaam, one of the 'Exonerated Five', the group of black boys falsely convicted of assaulting and raping a young white woman jogging in Manhattan's Central Park in 1989. The five boys were victims of racial profiling by the police determined to find their culprit and were all given lengthy prison sentences. Only years later were they exonerated when the real offender admitted to his crime, corroborated by DNA evidence. With their book, Punching the air, authors Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam have collaborated together to highlight ongoing issues of racial discrimination, police violence and injustice still happening today.
The story is written in verse, similar to Manjeet Mann's Run, rebel, with the same heart-felt rawness and honesty. We feel Amal's fear, his retreat behind a stony-faced silence, his confusion and desperation. His only relief is his art and his poetry. The pages are illustrated with lines and smudges of black; it is only when there a human connection with someone outside of the prison, that his drawings become butterflies, because the flutter of a butterfly's wings can have an impact around the world.
The story is bold and confronting with themes similar to the work of Angie Thomas, The hate U give, and On the come up, but the book is easy to read; the verse pages carry you along from the despair of the courtroom to the harshness of prison and then finally the rediscovery of hope through art, and the love of caring people.
Themes: Racism, Police brutality, Prison, Black Lives Matter, Social justice.
Helen Eddy

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