Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you’re like me, as you read this novel-in-verse, you can’t help but to think and feel empathetic for all the Black boys and teens who end up trapped in the system. Considering that Punching the Air is co-written and loosely inspired by true life experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five (formerly known as the Central Park Five), your heart will hurt even more. You think about all headlines of Black boys and teens trapped in the system and wonder about the ones you never hear about. The novel is also co-authored by Haitian-American writer Ibi Zoboi.
Amal Shahid a Black Muslim teen serving time in a juvenile detention center after a group street brawl leaves Jeremy Mathis hospitalized and in a coma. He is charged with aggravated assault and battery. Throughout the novel, Amal flashes back to the day of the fight in the gentrified neighborhood and other aspects of his school career. By how own admission, the young poet is more skater boy than baller, but that doesn’t mean that teachers at his school and the correctional officers at the facility don’t view him as a thug or a troublemaker.
Because I listened to the audiobook, I didn’t get to enjoy the layout of this novel-in-verse narrated by Ethan Herisse, who did a great job emoting. The novel doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after of Amal getting out, but there is a note of hope. He clings to his love of art, often rapping/reciting his own poetry. He draws butterflies, which represent freedom to him, even drawing wings on himself and his friends on a mural that he draws. His family and friends never give up on him, neither do some of the people he encounters while inside. The title of the book appears many times in reference to Amal clinging on to hope and fighting back on the walls and world closing in on him.
The court scenes and Amal’s musings of not being considered or treated like a human being remind me of Steve Harmon in Walter Dean Myers’ YA novel Monster (adapted into a Netflix film). Both teens turn to writing (journaling, letters, and poetry) to stay connected to the outside and to their own humanity. It’s heartwarming that letters from classmate and crush Zenobia, who signs her first letter “the girl with the blue braids” serve as an anchor for Amal, in addition to visits from his grandmother and his mother whom he calls by the Arabic word for mother, Umi. A fellow poet and prison abolitionist who works with Amal and other detainees calls to mind scenes from Shaka Senghor’s incarceration memoir Writing my Wrongs. All heavy books, all necessary reading.
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