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Cover for Punching the Air

Punching the Air

Ibi Zoboi, Yusef Salaam


List Price: 19.99*
* Individual store prices may vary.

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (12/7/2021)
Compact Disc (9/1/2020)
MP3 CD (9/1/2020)

Fall 2020 Kids Indie Next List

“When 16-year-old Amal is wrongfully imprisoned, we not only witness but are swept up in verse as his world darkens with each loss. He loses dreams, friendships, and hope, and makes a final stand for his humanity. The depth of his pain and the betrayal of educators in his life who are supposed to support him is so palpable that, at times, I had to put it down. The beauty comes when his art and self-expression become his salvation. This book is a window that every educator — and, really, every reader — should be made to look through.”
— Destinee Hodge, East City Bookshop, Washington, DC
View the List


New York Times and USA Today bestseller * Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor * Walter Award Winner * Goodreads Finalist for Best Teen Book of the Year * Time Magazine Best Book of the Year * Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year * Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year * School Library Journal Best Book of the Year * Kirkus Best Book of the Year * New York Public Library Best Book of the Year

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. A must-read for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

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, because of a biased system he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated. 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 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.

Praise For Punching the Air

“This book will be Walter Dean Myers’s Monster for a new generation of teens. An important, powerful, and beautiful novel that should be an essential purchase for any library that serves teens.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

"Awardworthy. Soul-stirring. A must-read.”  — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Prescient and sobering, Zoboi’s book is a vital story for young readers in a tumultuous time.” — Booklist (starred review)

“The sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of this young man will have readers holding out hope until the novel’s end.” — Horn Book (starred review)

“Zoboi and Salaam together craft a powerful indictment of institutional racism and mass incarceration through the imagined experience of Amal, a Black, Muslim 16-year-old facing imprisonment.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A mesmerizing novel-in-verse. The poems—sharp, uninhibited and full of metaphors and sensory language—quickly establish Amal's voice, laying bare the anger, despair, hope and talent it holds. Amal's experience of abuse by the system, as well as his peers', incites raw outrage, but his artistic self-expression offers a subtle yet significant kind of hope. It is a hope borne of anger, that knows the full depths of injustice and still dreams of a better future.”
Shelf Awareness (starred review)

"A wrenching novel whose story, told in verse, is both urgent and heartbreakingly familiar....Amal’s name is the Arabic word for 'hope.' That is what this book ultimately offers, too. Everyone should read it." — New York Times Book Review

Punching the Air highlights that wrongful convictions, the school-to-prison pipeline and the fear mongering of Black bodies is etched in the United States Constitution itself, ironically in the Thirteenth Amendment that criminalizes slavery but simultaneously creates an entirely new system of enslavement: the American prison system. It is not easy to break these topics down to adults, never mind children. But Punching the Air does so effectively through verse that feels honest and clear." — USA Today

“Amal’s voice is often poetic and compelling, and the details of life in NYC juvie are laceratingly vivid. An engaging and accessible read sure to provoke discussion, perhaps in conjunction with a factual exploration of Salaam’s own experiences or in partnership with Myers’ Monster.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“Stories, at their best, will break something old in you or build something new. Remarkably, Punching The Air does both. Zoboi and Salaam have created nothing short of a masterwork of humanity, with lyrical arms big enough to cradle the oppressed, and metaphoric teeth sharp enough to chomp on the bitter bones of racism. This is more than a story. This is a necessary exploration of anger, and a radical reflection of love, which ultimately makes for an honest depiction of what it means to be young and Black in America.”
Jason Reynolds, award-winning, bestselling author of Long Way Down

Punching the Air is the profound sound of humanity in verse. About a boy who uses his creative mind to overcome the creativity of racism. About a boy who uses the freedom of art to overcome his incarceration. About you. About me. Utterly indispensable.” — Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author

“In this beautifully rendered book, we are reminded again of how brilliant and precarious our Black Lives are and how art can ultimately heal us.” — Jacqueline Woodson, award-winning, bestselling author of Brown Girl Dreaming

Praise for BLACK ENOUGH: “A poignant collection of stunning short stories by Black, rock star authors” — Booklist (starred review)

“A breath of fresh air…nuanced and necessary.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Each entry is deftly woven and full of such complex humanity that teens will identify with and see some of their own struggles in these characters... This collection presents the beauty of black humanity in all its many forms.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

“The stories, all worth savoring, share a celebratory outlook on black teenagers fully and courageously embracing life.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for PRIDE: “This Bushwick-set, contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice tackles gentriciation, Blackness, and romance with honesty, humor, and heart. This excellent coming-of-age take on a classic belongs on all YA shelves.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

“Stands solidly on its own while cleverly paralleling Austen’s classic… in a contemporary story about race, gentrification, and young love” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for AMERICAN STREET: “Self-assured, elegant and utterly captivating.” — New York Times

“Mixing gritty street life with the tenderness of first love, Haitian Vodou, and family bonds, the book is at once chilling, evocative, and reaffirming.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Filling her pages with magic, humanity, tragedy, and hope, Zoboi builds up, takes apart, and then rebuilds an unforgettable story. This book will take root in readers’ hearts.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Zoboi’s stunning debut intertwines mysticism and love with grit and violence…Fierce and beautiful.” — Booklist (starred review)

“Will reach young readers regardless of their background.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)

“A breathtaking story about contemporary America that will serve as a mirror to some and a window for others, and it will stay with anyone who reads it.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

Balzer + Bray, 9780062996480, 400pp.

Publication Date: September 1, 2020

About the Author

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, a New York Times bestseller. She is the editor of the anthology Black Enough. Born in Haiti and raised in New York City, she now lives in New Jersey with her husband and their three children. You can find her online at

Dr. Yusef Salaam was just fifteen years old when his life was upended after being wrongly convicted with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” case. In 2002, after the young men spent years of their lives behind bars, their sentences were overturned. Now known as the Exonerated Five, their story has been documented in the award-winning film The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon and in Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed series When They See Us. Yusef is now a poet, activist, and inspirational speaker. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama, among other honors. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Sanovia, and their children. You can find him online at

Conversation Starters from

1. Amal observes that authorities at school, in the justice system, and the public at large, do not see him, but rather construct a self they assign to him, “shaping me into / the monster / they want me to be” (p. 16). Where does that monster image come from, and why is it so easy to assign it to Amal?

2. Amal expresses a feeling of inevitability about his fate in the system (p. 8), and the shaping of his life by outside forces, like the prosecutor writing the “script” and directing the “scene” (p. 22), and in the poem “Blind Justice” (p. 44). To what extent do you think he and the other inmates, and the privileged boys, created their own life outcomes, and to what extent are their outcomes results of societal forces?

3. When he is sentenced, Amal compares his life before this moment to Africa and says, “maybe jail / is America” (p. 61). In “DNA,” he connects the shackles he wears leaving the court to the shackles his ancestors wore (pp. 80–81). Discuss the connections between his experience as a black youth in contemporary America and the experiences of early Africans arriving in the Americas. What has changed, and where do we see echoes of the past?

4. Throughout his time in juvenile detention, Amal is told in various ways that he and the other boys have “already become everything we’re supposed to be” (p. 346). Ms. Buford says “I know your type,” and encourages him to just “do what you need to do” (pp. 327–328). Stanford responds to his concern about Kadon by saying, “There’s nothing you can do, Shahid” (p. 324). But Imani works for prison abolition. What do you think Amal’s perspective toward his situation should be? Should he stay angry? Give in? Protest? Have hope? What are his options, and what would be the outcome of any of his choices?

5. On page 133, Amal says of Ms. Rinaldi, “She failed me.” On the surface, he is referring to his grade in her art class, but how can this line be interpreted as a double entendre? In what other ways did Ms. Rinaldi fail Amal? What should she have done differently? Was her treatment of him entirely her fault, or was she also at the mercy of a system? Why did she see his art as separate from him? Why did she think she could “save” him (p. 192)?

6. Amal’s description of gentrification goes beyond a simple residential pattern, to an attitude of ownership. Reread the passage from “The Persistence of Memory,” starting from “They were from where the big houses are” (p. 196) to “we were like get the fuck out!” (p. 197). How does gentrification create antagonism between races and socioeconomic classes? How do you see other societal forces pushing groups of people to fight one another?

7. Compare the description of the black boys to the description of the white boys on page 202. Have you noticed these terms being used in the news and elsewhere? How do you think these ideas and images—whether conscious or subconscious—affect our culture? What about the criminal justice system? If these ideas are present in the minds of individuals at every level—from schools to the public to the police force to the courts and prisons—what will it take to transform the way black youth are viewed and treated?

8. Uncle Rashon says that “school teaches you what to think / not how to think” (p. 206)? In what ways does this ring true in your experience? Amal says that the detention center looks something like school (p. 105), and he calls his middle school “Prison Prep” (p. 127). What do you see as the role school plays in preparing youth for society? Do you think schools should change? In what ways do different kinds of schools serve different purposes? How does this disadvantage some youth more than others?

9. In the poem “Brotherhood,” Kadon’s friends claim Amal, telling him, “You one of us now. / You one of us” (p. 213). What do they mean? Why is it important to them that he identify as one of them? Why does he come to accept it? What are the benefits and drawbacks of joining a group in this environment? Compare the social dynamics and the violence inside the detention center to what Amal experienced on the outside.

10. Why does Amal refuse to comply with Imani’s poetry exercise about Mistakes and Misgivings (p. 221)? How would you react to it in his situation? How does it end up affecting him when he returns to it later?