Originally published: 1 September 2020
Author: Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Published by: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Length: 400 pages
Reading dates: 24-27 Nov 2020
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
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?
This book has been raved about all over Instagram and as I am a lover of stories told using verse (Sarah Crossan being an absolute favourite of mine), I knew this would be a powerful read. Having already brought myself a copy, I also brought a copy for the lovely Kerrie over at I Loved Reading This so we could do a buddy read together. You can find her review here.
Amal is just 16 when he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. We start at the trial and the disbelief he and his mother feel as he is found guilty. We then witness the frankly horrific conditions he has to face when he arrives at the juvenile detention centre, the treatment he receives from the officers and other inmates and the violence he suffers as he tries to just survive.
I think this book is all the more powerful because it is written in verse – the lack of words mean that every one is used to the best effect. The layout of the words on the pages and the illustrations throughout make the story all the more profound. Punching the Air is a thought provoking, disturbing and absolutely heart-breaking book looking at racism in our society and I urge you to read it. The hope from this novel comes from Amal’s love of poetry and art and the sweet relationship that develops between himself and a girl he knew from school who takes the time to write to him in prison which gives him something to live for.
One of the authors Yusef Salaam was wrongly imprisoned at the age of 15 with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” case. His sentence was overturned in 2002 and he and the other men are now known as the Exonerated Five. Although Amal’s story is not his story, Salaam’s voice and experience come through clearly and I have read more around what happened to him, which I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about before.
This is a children’s book (maybe for ages 14 and above) but it is an absolutely perfect read for adults too. I would love books like this to be on the national curriculum (instead of the books mostly by white male authors written over a hundred years ago). It is the sort of book I would want my son to read so he understands and is shocked by racial issues that frankly he probably doesn’t give much thought to. A stunning read, I’m so glad I read this.
About the author:
Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, a New York Times bestseller, and Punching the Air with co-author and Exonerated Five member, Yusef Salaam. She is the editor of the anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America. Raised in New York City, she now lives in New Jersey with her husband and their three children.
Dr. Yusef Salaam was just fifteen years old when his life was upended after being wrongly convicted with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” case. In 2002, after the young men spent years of their lives behind bars, their sentences were overturned. Now known as the Exonerated Five, their story has been documented in the award-winning film The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon and in Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed series When They See Us. Yusef is now a poet, activist, and inspirational speaker. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama, among other honours. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Sanovia, and their children.