In this year of racial unrest and protest, the world of children’s literature has responded with a welcome wave of history and fiction books concerning multiculturalism and prejudice. Several of these make it their business to shine a light on systemic racism, the very brightest being, for me, Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. Applauded as a depiction of what it means to be young and black in America, this is the story of Amal, a thoughtful and artistic teenager, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
When Amal and his friends are caught up in a heated exchange with a bunch of white skater kids, it tips over into violence, leaving a white teenage boy in a coma. Despite the absence of concrete testimony, Amal is convicted of aggravated assault and battery. It seems that Amal’s friends are ‘ghetto-thugs’ while the skaters are ‘full of potential,’ kids just having fun.
The price Amal pays is juvenile detention centre, and the searing description of his imprisonment leaves the reader feeling his internal rage, that dark heavy thing ‘not moving, like a heart stopped.’
This is a vital and compelling read, inspired by the real-life experience of co-author, Yusef Salaam, himself once the subject of a racist wrongful conviction. Salaam’s experience informs Amal’s story and we follow him into a grim world of bullying prison officers, abject cell conditions and a grindingly repetitive regime.
Amal is a creative spirit, an artist and poet. In the depths of despair, his instinct tells him that he needs to hang onto this.
‘If I write and draw and paint, maybe I’ll get out of here alive.’
Written in a free verse style that encompasses urban culture, hip-hop and Amal’s spirituality, this is a novel that speaks truth to power and blazes with the transcendent power of the arts. One of the best reads of 2020.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam is published by Harper Collin’s Children’s Books, 400 pages.