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First Impressions: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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In the Before Times, when parent volunteers were still allowed at my daughter’s middle school, I used to spend every Wednesday working in the school library doing a variety of jobs, only some of which have translated well to remote work. Fortunately, preparing new books to go into circulation is one of them.

I love this job, because our librarians have excellent taste in books, and each month’s order invariably includes several great books that I haven’t heard of yet, like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam.

First Impression: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Book cover for Punching the Air shows a swirl of orange, red, and purple around a black teenage boy's head and fist.

Genre: YA Novel in Verse

Publisher: Balzer & Bray/Harper Teen

Year Published: 2020

Format: Hardcover

Source: Library

Accolades: New York Times and USA Today Bestseller, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, New York Public Library Best Book of the Year

Book Summary: Punching the Air

From award-winning 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.”

Book description from

Why I’m Interested

The last novel in verse I read was Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin in 2013. Let’s just say, it did not turn me into a fan of the genre. Perhaps it was the fact I read Eugene Onegin in translation, or perhaps it was that I am not that familiar with Russian society in the 1830s, but after finishing Eugene Onegin I was left with the impression that novels in verse are fine but poems are kind of a contrived way to tell a story.

While preparing this week’s crop of books, I had a chance to read excerpts from Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Punching the Air. My accidental glimpses of their writing is making me reconsider. Zoboi and Salaam’s poems are immediate and thought-provoking in a way Eugene Onegin never was. Consider “Gray Suit,” one of the poems describing Amal’s trial.


Umi told me to wear a gray suit
because    optics

But that gray didn’t make me any less black
My white lawyer didn’t make me any less black

And words can paint black-and-white pictures, too.

Maybe ideas have their own eyes
separating black from white as if the world
is some old, old TV show

Maybe ideas segregrate like in the days of
Dr. King, and no matter how many marches
or Twitter hashtags or Justice for So-and-So

our mind’s eyes and our eyes’ minds
see the world as they want to
Everything already illustrated
in black and white

“Gray Suit” from Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, p. 9.

I would read the heck out of a novel written in poems like that.

What about you?

What’s on your TBR pile?

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