Punching the Air

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
Punching the Air Book Poster Image
Jailed teen finds his voice in poignant novel in verse.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Introduces many important figures in art, music, literature, and history. Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, Picasso, Michelangelo, James Baldwin, and more serve as inspiration and education for main character at home, in school, while imprisoned.

Positive Messages

You are the author of your life. No matter your circumstances, the resources for positive change live within you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Main character (narrator) is a Black Muslim teen. His relationship with his single mom is portrayed as loving, supportive. After being incarcerated, he finds helpers and role models in teachers and motivational speakers who volunteer at the prison and give him tools and encouragement to cope with his rage, nurture hope, and find his voice. 

Violence

A fistfight leaves a boy in the hospital, clinging to life. Scenes of prison fights and of young men being beaten by guards and other prisoners.

Sex

Talk of teen crushes and romance. While incarcerated, main character establishes a pen pal relationship with a young woman classmate he had a secret crush on.

Language

 "F--k," "s--t," "ass," the "N" word, and "nigga." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi (American Street) and Yusef Salaam, is a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist about an incarcerated teen who maintains his sense of hope through art and poetry. Violence plays an important part of the story: A fistfight leaves a boy in the hospital, clinging to life. There are scenes of prison fights and of young men being beaten by guards and other prisoners. Strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," "ass," the "N" word, and "nigga."  

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What's the story?

When PUNCHING THE AIR begins, Amal, a Black Muslim teen enrolled in an arts high school, is on trial for his role in a fight between a group of Black teens and a group of White teens. He's found guilty, in part because the White teen whose testimony could exonerate him lies in a coma. Amal is sentenced to prison, canceling his college plans. He lashes out at first, which results in punishment from the authorities and fights with other prisoners. A poetry class shows him how he can use art and writing to continue to move his life forward despite his circumstances.

Is it any good?

This book is a page-turner: emotionally true, politically astute, and beautifully written. Author Idi Zoboi collaborated on Punching the Air with Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated 5 (the "Central Park 5"), Black, Latino, and Muslim young men wrongly convicted of raping and beating a White woman in New York City's Central Park. The convictions were eventually vacated. The first-person narrator speaks in verse. This provides intimacy and emotional intensity, and is effective in communicating the quality of vivid dreams and fantasies.

Black-and-white illustrations simulate the appearance of a high school kid's composition book, with sketches and doodles on the pages. There's also interesting use of the arrangement of type on the page for effect.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the roles of art, music, and writing in Punching the Air. How do the arts serve as a source of information, a means to power, and a mode of self-expression? 

  • Would you like to learn more about any of the books, paintings, or historical figures mentioned in Punching the Air? Which ones, and why?

  • How does the authors' choice to tell the story in poetry affect how you understand it?

  • Did you like the way the authors used the visual presentation of the words?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love novels in verse and books with Muslim characters

Themes & Topics

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