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Big City Book Review: Ibi Zoboi’s Punching the Air

3 August 22 words: Zach Omitowoju

Interested in getting your hands on four free books? Well you’re in luck, because Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature are offering just that through their Big City Reads campaign. With stories ranging from loneliness to police injustice, and styles varying from prose to graphic novel, there’s something for every reader. Four young writers give us their run down of the books, continuing with Zach Omitowoju's take on Punching the Air...

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam is clearly an honest, empathetic, and semi- autobiographical read. Amal ‘Dawud’ Shahid is an African American, Muslim teenager that goes to East Hills High School for the Arts, a school that could have been inspired by Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, who is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison.

A socially relevant story, the book starts just before the jury sentences Amal and to begin with, the reader does not have much of a perspective on what happened and the events that led up to the verdict. This comes further as you dive deeper into the story and follow the journey of Amal.

From the pre-jitters in the court to the very anxious, full breakdown moment the judge says “guilty”, what we witness is a step-by-step collection full of Amal’s emotions. Confusion, anger, hopelessness – sometimes simultaneously. Not much is mentioned about his school facilities in supporting Amal, but thankfully, instead of things getting worse for him he turns his circumstances in another direction. He finds solace in his art, letter-writing, and his surroundings. All these things make him hopeful again. Nights turn into days that turn into weeks, then months.

We understand more about what Amal is going through with each page. His saving grace is that he has a support system in and out of prison waiting to see him thrive: his mum Umi, and friends such as Zenobia and Kadon. His letter exchanges with Zenobia are the story's loveliest moments. They show a friendship turning into a budding romance.

A highlight is how the novel shows how Amal’s brain seems to operate; it is always in a state of panic, which is understandable for a sixteen year old - let alone adding the fear and trauma to come and thinking about life behind bars.

Yussef Salaam, co-authors the book. He was wrongfully convicted in the 1989 “Central Park Five” case, along with four other boys who are now known as the “Exonerated Five”. The outro of the book discusses how the authors met in the late 90s and how they collaborated on the book.

I came across Yussef Salaam in 2020, when I watched Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us for the first time on Netflix. Punching the Air is not dissimilar, evoking empathy in its readers, it also does not fail to make you question its intentions with its references to African American history including Malcolm X and Kunta Kinte.

Punching the Air takes a poetic form with most of the book in stanzas and the story is told with a lot of useful imagery, metaphors, and explicit language – trigger warning: the use of the N-word is frequent but gives a better understanding of the language of the period the story is set.

Teenagers do silly things all the time. I know I did. We seem to now live in an era where plenty of stories with teenage protagonists have something gruesome at its central plot. It works, exposing the crueller and challenging aspects of our adolescent reality, but changing the narrative to something more upbeat and less haunting does not hurt.

Of course, this all depends on how you look at the book.

From Monday 4 July to Friday 12 August, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature will be handing out free books across the city. Explore four titles championed by the city’s young people, inspiring Nottingham with the mood-boosting power of words. Find out more here.

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