Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam Book Review

The young adult industry seems to be on a roll with properly diversifying its subjects and authors, and I cannot be more proud of the business for that. Books that bring up important but invisible-to-some subjects can make the world a better place. Roger Ebert said movies were an empathy machine, allowing you to fully get in the shoes of someone completely outside your world and understand their emotions. Well, I’d say it’s the exact same for books. Especially ones that bring you into people looking at the front end of a gun, whose lives are threatening to completely combust with the twitch of a finger, who has to live a life more dangerous than a Caucasian. This one is set in verse, a type of storytelling I’ve never read in a book before. This is Punching The Air.

Amal Shahid really knows his stuff about art. He was accepted to an art school he’ll now never be able to attend. Because he was found not only guilty of an assault, but an assault of a kid named Jeremy Mathis, who’s still unconscious and cannot provide testimony. He was assured by his lawyer everything would be okay. I can’t help but wonder who else he’s told that to. There’s a stone in his throat and a brick on his chest. When he is found guilty, even though he didn’t do it, the stone turns into a mountain and the brick turns into a building. His friends, family, and even long-time secret crush are obviously heartbroken. The prison is not entirely hell; Amal manages to make a close friend named Kadon, he still gets to have visits and letters and some rights to do some art, and even if one guard, Tattoo, is abusive and sadistic, another guard named Stanford is not quite that way. There’s some classes he can take too, and at least he’ll be away from his teacher Ms. Picardi, who’s always been against his success. But when you look a little closer, at how much more willing the justice system is to throwing away a dark-skinned teen’s life rather than a light-skinned teen’s, Amal knows there’s a big chance he’ll spend his remaining life behind bars, and even if his friends, family and drawings can numb his misery a little, he can’t keep it off forever.

Now, I really enjoyed myself with Punching the Air, but I was somehow not in love with it, and that was puzzling. Especially since it was a refreshing zip-through and the first 100 pages put that rock that turns to a mountain and that brick that turns to a building in my stomach. I sped through the entire thing and there were several moments where I was really shook. As a more brief read, its messages might be more solidifying than others, of how the justice system paints pictures of dark-skinned individuals the moment they lay eyes on them, like they emerged from the womb a thug, how his only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time allowing him to be lynched by those who see no problem in that. I’m always up for this sort of story because it’s hard to think of a premise more important. So what makes it nice, but…just nice, for me?

Something I must mention is the versing…well, there are several paragraphs of two, three or four, and there’s not really a proper transition of words to the next one. As I was reading, I was expecting proper jumps, and to not get them made it feel unnecessarily disjointed. Also, as it really dives into the mind, not very much is known about the side characters, and when fights break out or something spontaneous happens, I cared but wished there was more to know about. I also felt some things were missing, like how big the actual prison is, what they are served for meals, how many black, how many white and how many people with other ethnicities were prisoners here, and how fast or slow time passes.

Punching the Air is still an honest, hopeful and important book with a terrific ending that will leave it legendary in the coming years. I didn’t think it would go the route that it took by the conclusion, a conclusion that will leave many pondering. There’s also a moment in the climax where I actually clenched my fists. It involves a decision made behind Amal’s back, but it’s not what you think it is.

I think I prefer these kinds of books when they’re at regular length, but there are loads of ways to power an empathy machine.

If you like this, I’d try the books from Angie Thomas, Mark Oshiro and Samira Ahmed

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