Group Discussion: Punching the Air

When it came time for us to pick which book we should end our group discussions on for the year, PUNCHING THE AIR by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam immediately rose to the top of our list. It’s an important, timely book, and we were all excited to read and discuss it. Crystal even interviewed the authors in a previous post. So fair warning–there are spoilers ahead!

If you have read the book, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Balzer & Bray/Harperteen

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.

Audrey: It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in verse, and PUNCHING THE AIR reminded me just how wonderful they can be. Authors Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam wrote some breathtaking poetry here, and there were multiple points where I had to reread to make sure I really appreciated it all. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was how the placement of the text on page could change or enhance the impact of the poetry. For example, in the poem “Auction Block” (p. 104), there’s a section with just one word on each line that truly would not have hit the same way if those same words had been on longer lines.

Crystal: I seek out novels in verse. Like any format, they can be hit or miss, but Zoboi and Salaam have really created a masterpiece here. There are so many layers in this format. The poetry allows them to draw our eyes around the page in unique patterns. The combination of white space and carefully placed words is an art in itself. On top of that, there is imagery and rhythm in the words and all of this conveys an incredibly powerful story too. All writing can be difficult, but with poetry it seems there’s an added complexity and this book really does well on all levels.

Jessica: It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in verse too, and I’m so glad that I got to read this one in particular. The way the text interacts with the illustrations, and the way the text would form pictures (like the box on page 265) made me slow down and really think about what was being said. It was done so beautifully and powerfully.

K. Imani: It’s been a minute since I’ve read a novel in verse and I really like that the structure practically gives us the character’s true heart on the page. It made sense that since Amal was an artist and a poet to have him, the core of who he is, reflected on the page. A lot of beautiful images created with this structure, specifically the use of boxes which completely reinforced Amal’s confinement. I enjoyed the mix of art and poetry as art as well.

Audrey: I really loved how the titles of the poems in PUNCHING THE AIR were able to help you keep track of recurring themes/imagery throughout the story. I noticed that one poem was titled “Slave Ship” (p. 46), but I didn’t start connecting the dots until the poem “African American” (p. 60), where Amal says “maybe jail is America.” From that point on, I kept watch for more titles and imagery that bolstered those ideas, and it made reading the book a much richer experience for me and helped me connect ideas and events faster.

Crystal: There is so much imagery within this story especially as you say, relating to the slave ships and the many similarities between enslavement and the prison system. There are also many art references. The most obvious in my mind was The Thinker. Words are a scalpel that Amal says is shaping him “into the monster they want me to be.” He’s a sculpture of their making. So much of his thinking is wrapped up in how others view him and how those identities conflict with his image of himself.

Jessica: I’m definitely going to have to go back and reread Punching the Air with an eye on how the themes are introduced and refined on. Every single poem built on previous poems — like the way a direct line was drawn between slavery and the prison system, and Amal’s relationship with the butterfly effect.

K. Imani: I absolutely love butterflies so I absolutely loved that recurring theme in this novel. It went with the themes of birth and rebirth throughout the novel that I knew Amal would be “flying away” so to speak by the end. He may not be physically free but his spirit is on it’s way to begin soaring. When he was in solitary confinement and he used the butterfly to keep himself sane was especially moving to me (including how the poem is structured) that showed how despite the horrors that he was experiencing, Amal was not going to give up and give in because there was a part of himself, his butterfly, that was always free.

Audrey: Watching Amal try to survive a system that is meant to dehumanize him was heartbreaking, but I was so proud of him every time he found a way to fight back. He had his family, books, art, and a determination to survive in spite of everything. The poem “Blank Canvas” (p. 139) nearly made me cry.

Crystal: The stories we tell ourselves and the stories other people tell about us seem like they wouldn’t matter that much, but they can lead to so much injustice. In ‘Blind Justice II’ Amal explains that people see him and his friends as “animals, thugs, hoodlums, men” and yet they describe the others as “supported, protected, full of potential, boys.” All of this based on the stories they developed about certain people. Over and over he also gives examples of this with his teacher Ms. Rinaldi. As a teacher, these interactions were hard to witness. One time when they were learning about artists, Amal asked if other folks around the world painted “or just old white men from Europe?” She had already decided what kind of student he was. She saw him as a troublemaker. She didn’t see him as a curious student. She likely saw his question as an attack rather than a push to allow them to learn more and go beyond the canon. He was punished for asking a legitimate question.

Jessica: Since you brought up Ms. Rinaldi — Amal’s experiences really highlighted the impact of teachers: The ones that open up opportunities to express yourself, like his poetry teachers Imani Dawson and Dr. Bennu, and the ones like Ms. Rinaldi who think they’re helping students while they’re really hurting students. By having it out for Amal from day one, Ms. Rinaldi really took up her role as a cog in the school to prison pipeline. It was infuriating, and highlights how important it is for schools to be actively anti-racist.

K. Imani: While I want to go off about Ms. Rinaldi, I’m saving that rant. What really moved me with this story of how the system fails incarcerated youth by not meeting their social and emotional needs. Many of the kids who are in the system are behind academically (I know that Amal was not) but they don’t meet their academic needs. A worksheet? Come on, that is not teaching! In addition, Amal had his world torn upside down and he goes through all the different stages of grief and instead of getting support, he is punished. I was really bothered that the social worker didn’t understand that, but to me, I feel this novel showed up what it was really like in juvenile detention. My heart broke for Amal, all the boys really, because with more care, purpose (i.e., having more enrichments like art and poetry) the boys could see their self-worth. Amal had to fight so hard just to be seen, just to be considered human, that this book broke my heart.

Audrey: There are a lot of adults in PUNCHING THE AIR. Some of them are great, and some of them are terrible. Ms. Rinaldi was one that really stuck with me–the ostensibly nice, liberal, educated teacher type who would say they aren’t racist, but who nonetheless perpetuate an unjust (and specifically antiblack) system. Amal was keenly aware of that: “She failed me / over and over again / until— / She thought she could / save me” (p. 192).

Crystal: I too had thoughts about Ms. Rinaldi. It’s easy as white teachers to believe that we are one of the “good ones” saving students. We may believe we want the best for our students and we’re working to that end, but we can be incredibly blind to the harm we are causing. I could go on, but I also want to mention Umi. She doesn’t always understand Amal and what’s going on inside him, but there’s no question that she is there for him. She loves unconditionally with fierce love. She offers a lot of wisdom too.

K. Imani: I was actually very angry at a number of adults in this novel, specifically Ms. Rinaldi and Tattoo officer. They are both the same sides of a coin, but just go about their racism differently. Ms. Rinaldi is “well-meaning” racists that POC are on the constant watch for (and way too many who are in our schools) and Tattoo was clearly a white supremacist that has infiltrated law enforcement. Having those two in the book really highlighted how dangerous and systematic the school-to-prison pipeline is and that we must do everything we can to reverse it. On the flip side, I wish Imani Dawson and Dr. Bennu had stuck around more as I felt like they were really starting to get through to the boys. I greatly enjoyed Dr. Bennu’s session and I was hoping, for Amal’s sake, that he’d have more interaction with the kids.

Audrey: In the ending “A Note From the Authors,” Zoboi and Salaam say “While Punching the Air is not Yusef’s story, Amal’s character is inspired by him as an artist and as an incarcerated teen who had the support of his family, read lots of books, and made art to keep his mind free.” The thought that has stuck with me most after finishing the book is that there are so many more Yusefs and Amals in the prison system right now–and others who are fighting that system.

Crystal: Many people may just think it was a superhero book so it might not be an obvious connection, but several times I was reminded of the book Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds. That story also dealt with some of the ways in which schools and educators can label Black kids and have entire stories about them in their minds that can be incredibly toxic. These biases or stories that folks tell themselves about students of color have real intentional or unintentional consequences usually involving much higher incidences of disciplinary actions in schools. Both of these books could open discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline. As a side note, Miles Morales also writes poetry. I’d seriously consider pairing the two books if I was a high school teacher. Other related books I’d recommend is This is My America by Kim Johnson and Just Mercy Adapted for Young People by Bryan Stevenson.

Jessica: Crystal beat me to it! I was going to bring up Jason Reynolds’ Miles Morales too. That one is a must-read.

K. Imani: I’m going to third Crystal’s suggestion of Jason Reynold’s Miles Morales novel. It was so deep and hit on some of the same topics that Punching the Air did, just with a Marvel style bent.

So what did you think of PUNCHING THE AIR? Do you have any suggestions for similar books to recommending to a teen reader?