Savvy Recommendations: Punching the Air

Happy Wednesday Savvy Readers! This week we’re back with ONE AMAZING BOOK we think everyone should read. Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam made quite a stir when the manuscript first started circulating in our office, and today, we’re breaking down the parts that made it a truly incredible read!


Punching the Air might be classified as a YA novel in verse, but it is truly one of those books that everyone can enjoy and appreciate. The writing is so well-executed and the emotions of the main character, Amal, are so acute I was sucked into the story immediately. Following a Black boy who is wrongfully incarcerated, Punching the Air was inspired by Yusef’s own experience as a former member of the Central Park Five (now the Exonerated Five). Imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Yusef’s own poetry that he wrote while in prison is woven into this book, and it’s impossible to separate the message of the book from the raw emotions coursing through each page. I get emotional just thinking about this story, its authenticity, and the realization that for many people, wrongful incarceration is a horrifying reality. I truly cannot recommend this book enough, it was that moving, and the fact that it is grounded in Yusef’s own journey makes it all the more powerful.


I’m an English major who specialized in some very weird stuff, so bear with me on this one, but the thing I was drawn to with Punching the Air was the use of white space throughout the book. As the story progresses, the verses are laid out in a way that mirrors not only Amal’s exterior situation but also his internal struggles. When he is placed in solitary confinement, the white space that surrounds the verses on all sides not only mimics Amal’s isolation but also represents the suffocating effects of a racist system that is designed to render him “Other”. In these moments, the authors’ choice to use scattered words throughout the white space on the pages is a revolutionary act and a reminder of Amal’s own resilience. While I was reading Punching the Air, I could not take my mind off Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s use of and avoidance of white space as it comes to represent the brutal realities of systemic racism and the larger effects it has on Black minds, Black voices, and Black lives.

Did you follow all that? As I said, I like the weird stuff in books. Suffice to say, I love this book because there are a million different things to talk about, and it still won’t be enough.


The structure of Punching the Air is so brilliantly precise. Not only is the meaning of every word full to the brim, like Jesse mentioned, the exact placement of each word on the page and in relation to others packs a depth of meaning. In the section titled Black Ink, the dichotomy of white vs. black as it pertains to all things is explained through art and the separation of words into stanzas that emphasize the “I” vs. “He”. Not a single space, or line, or word is a mistake or a filler. As you read, every ounce of the book will teach you something new.


Amal has always been an artist and a poet, but even in his diverse school, he’s still looked down upon by a biased system. When he’s sent to prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, he almost lets the despair and rage sink him. But, when he starts attending a prison art class, he finds some refuge. The effect his art has on him is transformative. It gives him hope when he feels like he has none. Art is such an important part of the story. Through art, Amal fights for the freedom to express himself against those who wish to silence him. Although we don’t get to see the outcome of Amal’s story, we do get to join him on his transformation through his art. It shows how art can alter your perspective and refocus your energy.

Well, Savvy Readers, I hope we’ve convinced you to pick Punching the Air up! Tell us in the comments down below or on Twitter @SavvyReader if you’ll be adding this one to your list. We really hope you do!

Happy reading!

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