Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five (Review by Paula Torontali)

2 min read

Rating: 4.0 Stars

From award-wining bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and Prison Reform Activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes an essential novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated.

The authors craft a powerful indictment of institutional racism and mass incarceration through the imagined experience of Amal, a Black, Muslim 16-year-old facing imprisonment. Amal, a gifted artist and poet attending a prestigious fine arts high school, has his life turned upside down when a nighttime park confrontation leaves a white kid from the other side “of that invisible line/ we weren’t supposed to cross” in a coma, and Amal and his four friends on the hook for assault and battery they did not commit.

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. While I found it challenging to read at times, I think it lends itself very well to the text – giving Amal a more human, emotional connection to the reader as we get to experience Amal’s life from his deepest, most inner thoughts. The prose is beautiful, and the imagery is perfectly pitched to match Amal’s feelings of regret, remorse and grief at the loss of his future.

It is not a book that I would normally pick up, but the issues are so timely and thought-provoking and makes reading this book is as important, especially during these times as it’s so relevant.

I rated it 4 out of 5 stars because it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to realize and discover and appreciate all that that have gone through. It was heartbreaking to read, and also made me so angry. The injustices that Amal can clearly be seen in the actual world.

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