Summary and book reviews of Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air

by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi

Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi X
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Part I

Birth

Umi gave birth to me

at home
She has a video
and every birthday
she makes me watch

When I was little
I would run away

Umi would laugh and say
Come here, boy
You gotta remember
where you came from!


She'd chase me around

that small apartment
and I'd cover my eyes and
pretend to be gagging
That's nasty, Mama, I'd say

That's life, Amal
You have to respect it

she'd say

Umi was in this inflatable pool
in the middle of our living room
with the midwife next to her
My father was holding the camera

She was taking deep fire breaths
eyes closed tight, not even screaming
almost praying
Then the midwife plunged
both her hands into the pool

And then
there I was rising out of water
Squirming little brown thing

barely crying
big eyes wide
as if I'd already done this before
as if I'd already been here before

Umi says
I was born with an
old, old soul

Old Soul

The thing about being born
with an old soul
is that

an old soul can't tell you
all the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Amal observes that authorities at school, in the justice system, and the public at large, do not see him, but rather construct a self they assign to him, "shaping me into / the monster / they want me to be" (p. 16). Where does that monster image come from, and why is it so easy to assign it to Amal?
  2. Amal expresses a feeling of inevitability about his fate in the system (p. 8), and the shaping of his life by outside forces, like the prosecutor writing the "script" and directing the "scene" (p. 22), and in the poem "Blind Justice" (p. 44). To what extent do you think he and the other inmates, and the privileged boys, created their own life outcomes, and to what extent are their outcomes results of societal forces?
  3. When he is sentenced, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The book's messaging around systemic racism and structural violence can be heavy-handed, relying on clunky exposition and stock characters rather than trusting Amal and the reader to gradually awaken to a greater awareness of these issues through the story. The writing, however, can be captivating and powerful, especially when it lets the reader into Amal's interior life. Spare and straightforward verse gives way to vibrant, rhythmic bursts when he spits his rhymes. He is a wonderfully complex main character — neither sinner nor saint, sheltered yet aware, still a boy but not a child — and an important counter to the stereotypes of Black teenage boys that saturate the media...continued

Full Review Members Only (521 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Bintrim).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Zoboi offers readers her brilliance and precision within this novel in verse that centers on the fictional account of 16-year-old Amal Shahid...Awardworthy. Soul-stirring. A must-read.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Zoboi and Salaam together craft a powerful indictment of institutional racism and mass incarceration...Using free verse, Zoboi and Salaam experiment with style, structure, and repetition to portray 'old soul' Amal's struggle to hold on to his humanity through the chaotic, often dehumanizing experience of juvenile incarceration.

School Library Journal (starred review)
This book will be Walter Dean Myers's Monster for a new generation of teens. An important, powerful, and beautiful novel that should be an essential purchase for any library that serves teens.

Author Blurb Jason Reynolds, award-winning, bestselling author of Long Way Down
Stories, at their best, will break something old in you or build something new. Remarkably, Punching the Air does both. Zoboi and Salaam have created nothing short of a masterwork of humanity, with lyrical arms big enough to cradle the oppressed, and metaphoric teeth sharp enough to chomp on the bitter bones of racism. This is more than a story. This is a necessary exploration of anger, and a radical reflection of love, which ultimately makes for an honest depiction of what it means to be young and Black in America.

Author Blurb Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author
Punching the Air is the profound sound of humanity in verse. About a boy who uses his creative mind to overcome the creativity of racism. About a boy who uses the freedom of art to overcome his incarceration. About you. About me. Utterly indispensable.

Author Blurb Jacqueline Woodson, award-winning, bestselling author of Brown Girl Dreaming
In this beautifully rendered book, we are reminded again of how brilliant and precarious our Black Lives are and how art can ultimately heal us.

Reader Reviews

Anna Rowe

Packs a Punch
If you value a book that really has the ability to put you in someone else's shoes, give this a try. I was impressed. It was a powerful, immersive read.

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Beyond the Book

The "Central Park Five" (The Exonerated Five)

Yusef Salaam speaking in Union Square On the night of April 19, 1989, several dozen teen boys went into New York City's Central Park as a loose group. Early on the morning of April 20, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white investment banker, was found in the park; she had been raped and badly beaten. She remained in a coma for two weeks and retained no memory of the attack.

Amid media outcry over Meili's attack and under pressure to solve the case, the police linked the two events, and soon arrested five of the boys who had been at the park that night: Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (15), Yusef Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14) and Korey Wise (16). Dubbed the "Central Park Five" by the media, the boys, all Black or Latino, were subjected to hours of intense ...

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