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150 - November Book Club - Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's PUNCHING THE AIR

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

In this Book Club episode of the Unabridged podcast, Ashley, Jen, and Sara discuss Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's Punching the Air. After our Bookish Check-in, we share our opinions about the book and some favorite quotations, and then each of us offers another book we think would pair well with this YA novel in verse. Finally, we end by sharing some new favorites we've discovered lately.

Bookish Check-in

Ashley - Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji

Jen - Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom

Sara - Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle's Let It Snow

Our Pairings

Ashley - Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage

Jen - Nic Stone’s Dear Justyce

Sara - Ellen Hopkins’s Burned

Mentioned in Episode

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater

Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped

Jason Reynolds's Long Way Down

Nic Stone's Dear Martin

“Wait for It” from Hamilton

Song Exploder podcast and Netflix series

Give Me One - A Recent Favorite

Ashley - Kim’s Convenience on Netflix

Sara - Hamilton

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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Bookish Check-in

book cover of John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle's Let It Snow

Sara said, "I think that if you've been listening week after week, you'll notice a theme in my choice reading. Because what I have started now is Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle's Let It Snow because I am still trying in my choice reading to find joy and light heartedness. And so this is a collection of three—I mean, I would call them a little bit more than short stories, but it's a collection of three maybe novellas—so three novellas that center around the winter and young love. It's YA, and you all know how I feel about John Green.

"So I was looking at my shelf and was like what is the next winter or holiday-themed book I should read? And that one I've had on my shelf for so long. So I started it, and the first novella in the book is by Maureen Johnson, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm not very far in it because I just finished another book. But it is really sweet. And I'm just happy to read a nice, light YA read. So that is what I'm reading."

book cover of Akwaeke Emezi's The Death of Vivek Oji

Ashley said, "I'm currently completely enraptured by this book. I am reading Akwaeke Emezi's The Death of Vivek Oji, and I am actually listening to this one on audio, and it is a spellbinding story. I just think it is so powerful. It is talking about, as the title suggests, you know up front that Vivek has died and is brought home and has clearly been murdered, it appears, but certainly has died of a violent death at an early age. And so it's all the unpacking of what led to that moment. And it is phenomenal. Jen talked about this one before, and I knew when she was describing it that I really wanted to read it, and I have just really been swept up in this story and think that Emezi does such a great job of creating character and showing the complexities of people and the relationships between them. So I am loving it. So that's what I'm reading right now.

book cover of Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom

Jen said, "So I am cheating just a little bit: I actually just finished this book this morning and have not had time to start a new one. But it is Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom. And I absolutely loved Homegoing and had some apprehension because I loved it so much that I wanted this one to live up to that first book. And it is amazing. It is also fascinating because Homegoing was historical fiction, largely, and really sweeping and epic, and Transcendent Kingdom is modern. It is focused on one girl and her family. But it is just equally captivating. I am loving it.

"It focuses on a woman named Gifty, who's a scientist, and she is doing experimentation on mice to see if she can get them to be able to resist addiction. You find out through the book—this happens pretty early, so this is not a spoiler—that her parents who were from Ghana came to the United States, and her mother has suffered from some mental illness over the years. And her older brother, Nana, died of an overdose. She talks really early on about how her family went from four to two. . . .

"It is absolutely beautiful. . . . The chapters are really short, they move very quickly, so even though it's literary fiction, I think it reads really, really fast. [Gifty] is just this amazing, complex character with this really strong voice."

Main Segment - Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's Punching the Air

book cover of Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's Punching the Air

Jen read a quick summary: "Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's Punching the Air is a YA novel in verse about Amal. As the book begins, Amal is on trial for attempted murder and aggravated assault. After he is found guilty, we follow Amal as he enters a juvenile detention center and contends with the injustice of his sentence. He begins to nurture his inner strength and voice as he comes to understand the forces that brought him to this place."

When we shared our overall impressions, Ashley said, "I think that [the authors] did a great job of exploring the systemic problems that lead to Amal going to the juvenile detention center, and also what it is like for him there. I think that that part really resonates and shows how demoralizing that experience itself is to young people, and so I thought all of that was just really well done."

Sara said, "I love this as an access point for young adults who may be intimidated by a book like Stamped or books that are longer in length. I like having this content available in a book in verse, much like Jason Reynolds's Long Way Down. I like that the social justice issues are being discussed in books that are accessible to a wide range of readers.

Jen said, "I think there were times it really reminded me of Just Mercy and I think the way that in that book, Bryan Stevenson balances the universal and the personal... I think that Zoboi and Salaam do that in here as well. So you see Amal come to realize the systems that have brought him there, and that keep him there and that treat him the way he is treated when he's in the juvenile detention center. But you also see him take responsibility for some of the things that he did that he now regrets."


book cover of Ellen Hopkins's Burned

Sara chose Burned by Ellen Hopkins and said, "[This] is also a novel in verse, and I think they are quite different. . . . Burned is about a girl named Payton who lives in a very strict, abusive, fundamental Mormon household, and it is a lot about her questioning her faith and trying to break away from this abusive family and trying to be a teenager away from like kind of the oppressive household she lives in. So it's quite different in in subject matter, but what reminded me of that of Punching the Air is that Payton is definitely oppressed by the expectations of her father. And I mean, there is some pretty terrible abuse in it, and I just feel like there are some similarities to Punching the Air, and in addition, I think in terms of the way that the book reads, it's super fast. Hopkins does a very good job of writing super-compelling novels that move quickly, and when you buy them they look like they're like a million pages. But they move super fast and similar to Punching the Air, there are a few words on the page, but each page says a lot. I think that like Punching the Air, Burned is a book that will be very compelling for young adults. Hopkins has a really good job of taking a social issue that affects teenagers and writing really, really compelling stories about those. So I think that that they are similar in that way."

book cover of Tayari Jones's An American Marriage

Ashley said, "I decided to choose one that I think focuses on some of the systematic things that I've shared that I really like. So in this one, you can see the connection between the system and problems in America, the prison pipeline, the way that black boys and men are treated in America and viewed and how incarceration itself affects them and affects their overall well being. And so I wanted to share Tayari Jones's An American Marriage. I absolutely loved this book. I think I've talked about it at least in a check in, but it was for sure one of my favorite reads of the year. I think it's really masterfully done.

"This one is not YA, although I do think advanced readers could certainly read it. It's great literary fiction. But this book focuses on a young married couple, who they live in Atlanta, and early on in their marriage, they decide to they go back to visit his family's home. And while they're there, they make this, you know, spur of the moment decision to stay in a hotel. And it reminds me in that way of Amal's situation where he keeps thinking back to that moment when he decided to go with his friends instead of staying home and how regretful he is about that, even though he could not have known what was to come. So this happens to Roy, he's accused of the rape of a white woman and then ultimately is convicted. It's very clear that he did not commit the crime. But he's sentenced to twelve years in jail. . . . So I just really loved this, and I just thought it was a really rich story. I think it does a great job of exploring what incarceration is like for him, but also for the people who love him, and how painful it is for them to try to find ways to support him while he is living out his sentence."

Jen said, "My official pairing is Nic Stone's Dear Justyce, which I recently read and just loved. We've talked a lot about Dear Martin on the podcast, and this is its sequel—I would say it's almost more a companion. So in this one, Justyce, who is the protagonist of Dear Martin, is the recipient of letters, and those letters are written by Quan, who is a teenager who grew up close to Justyce. They knew each other when they were small, they were friends, but their lives have taken very different paths. And so we see that Kwan is now in prison. He is there because he confessed to shooting a police officer, and that is part of Dear Martin.

"What Nic Stone does that I think is so, so brilliant is she goes back to his childhood, we go back to when Quan was eight years old and the first time he met Justyce. And then you see the ways that their paths diverged, that because of a series of just different circumstances, Justyce's life goes one way and Quan's life goes a very different way.

Give Me One - New Favorite

Don't miss our Give Me One segment, where each of us share a new favorite thing we've found recently.


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