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My Thoughts on “Punching The Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

And what does dust do, Amal?
What did Maya Angelou say about dust?

Umi asks

It rises, I whisper

Just like any bookworm, I love to read. Books have always been a big part of my childhood and one of my favorite ways to pass time. Even now it is still relevant in my life. However, these past two years have been weird and challenging for obvious and personal reasons, so unfortunately reading has been pushed aside. To get myself back into reading, I have set myself a goal to read 100 books by the end of 2022.

With its beautiful and colorful cover, “Punching the air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam became the first book I finished this year.

The story follows a young boy named Amal who was wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit and ultimately sent to jail. Angry and desperate for freedom, Amal tries to speak his truth through his gift of words and art to survive the horrors of prison.

What really grabbed my attention when I started reading was the writing. The entire story is written in poetic form to weave in a narrative that’s both captivating and breathtaking. I really love the use of imagery, metaphors, similes, and recurring themes all throughout the story. Ibi and Yusef did vividly describe Amal’s feelings and emotions as well as the events that take place within the story. Throughout the story, I could feel Amal’s rage, the despair weighing on him when he is locked in his cell. I could hear his struggles of fighting against a system that wasn’t meant to do anything but break him. I love how even the way some of the texts are separated and spaced apart including the rhythm of how the poems are meant to read enhances and creates a bigger impact. I heavily enjoyed how the poetic elements show Amal as a deep and complex character.

I find some of the characters to be unique and represent some themes that are sprinkled all throughout the book. There are two characters that I highly like and two characters I didn’t like so much. All four characters affect Amal positively and negatively. Umi, Amal’s mother, for example, is one of my favorite characters. I love how compassionate and endearing she is toward Amal and determined to remind Amal to not let his spirit be broken; to keep fighting and hold on to hope. His poetry teacher, Imani, is also one of my favorite characters. With her, she gives Amal a chance to express himself through his gift of poetry and art. She pushes him to not let the system break him and encourages him to speak his truth.

On the other hand, are my least favorite characters: Ms. Rinaldi, Amal’s art teacher, and a cop nicknamed “Tattoo”. Both characters frustrated me and made me feel bad for Amal and his inmates. Especially Ms. Rinaldi. Ms. Rinaldi never understood Amal. Instead of being like Imani, Ms. Rinaldi often criticizes Amal in addition to labeling him as a troublemaker, having anger issues, and being disruptive. As a teacher, she had failed him and represented many other teachers that are not aware of the type of impact they have on their students. Tattoo would make anybody’s blood boil with the way he uses his power to handle people like Amal with violence and tries to diminish the hope they have. How he tries to keep anyone from expressing themselves fully.

Reading “Punching The Air” of course made me think of the countless times I have heard black kids or people of color being treated disrespectfully, inhumanely, and without justice much like how Amal was treated in the story. It helped me to understand how dreadful it is as a teen or as a small kid to go through a system that will drastically affect them emotionally, mentally, and physically. Many of them end up being exposed to things that they are not ready for or put into situations that may aren’t safe for them. The fact that Amal’s experiences as an incarcerated teen are based on one of the author’s own experiences reveals that this is a problem that has been going on for years and continues to be a problem to this day. But knowing that there are people out there like Imani who are trying to make a change gives me hope things will hopefully be better.

Overall, I really enjoy reading the book and everything it had to offer. It is one of my favorite books of the year! I highly recommend it to anyone who loves poetry, intriguing characters, and excellent storytelling especially poets.

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Gahnique Bell

Kennesaw '25

Hey guys! My name is Gahnique Bell and I am an English Major and a Film Studies Minor here at Kennesaw State University! I'm essentially a huge nerd who loves to read, write, draw, play video games, and watch tv shows/movies! I also love to explore different places, learn about new things, and enjoy the company of my friends and family!
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