Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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One fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighbourhood escalates into tragedy. ‘Boys just being boys’ turns out to be true only when those boys are white.
Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal Shahid’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.

This book is based on the real story of Yusef Salaam, who was one of the five people wrongly accused of assault and rape in the Central Park jogger case in 1989. He is also the co-author of this book alongside Ibi Zoboi. You can read more about his case and the Innocence Project here.

This book is definitely a must read. It is told in verse, and is a very emotional, honest and poignant story. Amal made for a sympathetic protagonist who reflects the story of Salaam well. Following similar themes of discrimination, racial profiling and injustice that the real life version followed, I found this one very hard hitting.

When you find yourself in dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in that darkness,

This story is told through verse, and the writing is absolutely beautiful but still conveys the story well. My only complaint is I felt some of the parts of this book were almost out of reach – a little too abstract to properly convey the story of this boy. I craved something slightly more tangible to hold onto in the writing. I felt a little disconnected to the main character in a time where I really wanted to be connected to him.

However, I did really like the portrayal of Amal’s family and fellow inmates. His story made me so hopeful for him but so angry at the cruel injustice of the world and sometimes, the law. I just wanted more from his story, and more of a connection to the people in it.

and even if that light is inside of you, you can illuminate your own darkness by shedding that light on the world.

This book and story are so important and need to be shed light on. Even though Salaam has been free for 18 years now, we cannot ever forgive the system for what the exonerated five went through. I’m so glad this book is out there to tell me their story and sadly, the story of many others like them. It is an emotional, hopeful journey told through verse and illustrations.

★★★★
4 out of 5 stars

-Beth

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