TIMELY YA READ: Punching the Air Review

Summary (from the publisher): From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo. 

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 

starts today

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? 

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.


My Rating: 4/5 Stars

My Thoughts: 

I really can’t come up with a YA title to compare Punching the Air to because it is just so, so different from what is out in the YA book world. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book that follows a protagonist who is incarcerated, let alone one that deals with such timely themes and conversations. Co-written by Ibi Zoiboi and Yuself Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is a YA novel told in verse following Amal, a teenager who is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel begins with Amal’s court case and decision and soon transitions into his life living in a juvenile detention center. 

Punching the Air caused me to have so many visceral reactions, especially in stanzas when Amal is describing the violence and depression he experiences inside juvenile detention. The reader really begins to feel his frustration and anger, especially when talking to the social worker and other adults who can’t comprehend what Amal is going through. There are so many important stanzas centered around race and discrimination, as Amal identifies as Black and Muslim. Amal is also an artist, and he often attempts to work through his frustration with his (white) art teacher who never understood Amal or his desire to learn about artists with a similar identity as him. Amal tries to rely on art as a form of escapism while in prison, but he often prevented from doing so because it is seen as privilege there. 

What ultimately didn’t work for me, although I know other readers may absolutely love, was the novel’s writing style. I normally stay away from verse, but I do try to push myself to read it, especially when I’m so into a novel’s synopsis, Punching the Air and even Elizabeth Acevedo’s recent release, Clap When You Land, included. However, I felt like I was just missing something based on Punching the Air’s style. I wanted to know more about Amal and wanted more details about his story. At the same time though, I recognize that maybe background and every little detail isn’t essential to the purpose of this book. There are also illustrations scattered throughout the story, and while I do think they contributed to the book’s atmosphere, I found that it was often hard to follow at times – it was almost like when I read Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s The Illuminae Files and trying to teach myself how to read the stanza. 

Overall, Punching the Air was an incredibly timely read that is more than deserving of attention and love from readers this fall. I highly recommend setting aside two or three hours one day and eating this one up in one sitting. I could so especially this one being implemented into classrooms this fall when discussing race and social justice this school year. 

Punching the Air just came out on September 1, 2020. 

This review is based on an advance reader’s edition provided by the publisher. By no means did this affect my thoughts & opinions 


Is Punching the Air on your TBR? Have you read any books by Ibi Zoiboi? Share in the comments! 

5 thoughts on “TIMELY YA READ: Punching the Air Review

  1. Gosh this one seems just so heartbreakingly necessary to read, I definitely need to pick it up! I agree that I’m also not the biggest fan of books in verse just because I don’t process it in a way that makes for smooth reading, but I can totally see how fans of other books in verse would love this!! Thanks for the review ♥

    Liked by 1 person

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