The background to this young adult verse novel is that in 1989 five teens were arrested and convicted of rape and battery in what came to be known as The Central Park Jogger case. Yusef Salaam was one of those boys, against whom there was no evidence. Punching the Air is not Yusef's autobiography but is inspired by his experience as a young artist and incarcerated black teen.
Our protagonist in this story is Amal. He's a clever kid who writes rhymes and gets into the extended art class but institutional racism is against him from the start. Ms Rinaldi teaches by making him memorise paintings and dates and when Amal queries the relevance of old white painters it becomes clear that this system doesn't cater for a boy of his background.
There has been a gentrification of the area in which Amal has grown up. He's out with his mates one night and the white boys tell the black boys to get out of their neighbourhood. An almighty fight cracks off and Amal is involved. A white boy is beaten so badly he becomes comatose and Amal is caught, tried and convicted, protesting his innocence all the way.
Amal is traumatised and this is not an easy transition for him. He's angry and humiliated and expecting everyone to be against him and of course many are. The worst of the violence and racism is alluded to but it is neatly and horrifically encapsulated in a description of a tattoo that one of the prison guards wears of a black baby with a noose around its neck. There are tiny moments like this that say absolutely everything and the result is an emotional punch to the gut.
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Amal comes to engage with the scant opportunities that are presented to him while incarcerated – a poetry class that gets pulled, an art initiative that gets squashed by bureaucracy – and he beautifully and subtly references Maya Angelou's Still I Rise. As his dreams are consistently brought to dust, still, he rises.
This is a book with which to challenge yourself and your assumptions and its form capitalises on the way in which poetry is calling out to youth as a way to condense their thoughts and express their truth in this world gone mad. A powerful book that deserves a wide audience.