Prison is a box. Once a person is trapped inside, the box’s hard lines and confines become their entire world. The box presses down on the people it holds captive and tries to destroy what makes them unique, what makes them human, all in the interests of conformity, survival and the comfort of others. In Punching the Air, 16-year-old Amal Shahid finds himself slammed inside the cold, concrete box of a juvenile detention center after a false accusation.
Amal is a talented visual artist, an aspiring poet and rapper, a well-read scholar and a skilled skater, beloved by his Muslim family. He’s never fit easily into any box. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Amal and his friends got into a fight with a group of white kids at the basketball court in Amal’s gentrifying neighborhood. Amal admits to throwing the first punch, but he definitely didn’t throw the punch that put one of the white kids in a coma. That doesn’t save him from becoming the victim of an unjust, racist system that punishes him for it anyway. As Amal serves out his sentence, he tries to write and paint his way out of the box, even as the box itself—and many of those trapped inside it with him—try to break him. In spite of his surroundings, he clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity.
A fast-paced novel in verse co-authored by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi (American Street) and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. Amal’s first-person narration is an extraordinary achievement of characterization. His voice on the page is youthful but wise, cutting but inviting, quiet but resonant; his words read effortlessly, but that effortlessness is clearly the result of skilled effort. Punching the Air more than deserves a place among both outstanding YA novels in verse, including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and among YA novels that explore the intersection of race and justice, including Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Kim Johnson’s This Is My America. This is vital reading for every teen.