BY BETH DEDMAN
Dr. Yusef Saalam of “The Exonerated Five” and New York Times bestselling author Ibi Zoboi have partnered to write the young adult novel Punching the Air, the story of a black, Muslim teen wrongfully imprisoned, according to HarperCollins Publishers.
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, will publish the novel Sept. 1 in the U.S.
The story is based on the events of the life of Salaam, who was a member of “The Exonerated Five,” formerly known as “The Central Park Five.” Salaam was one of five black and Latino boys who were falsely accused, convicted and sentenced to prison for assault and rape in 1989. Salaam was 15.
In 2002, the true rapist and murderer confessed and the sentences of the boys were overturned. The events of the trial and aftermath were recently depicted in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us.
Salaam was released from prison in 1997 and met Zoboi in a class at Hunter College two years later.
After meeting Salaam, Zoboi continued to follow his case, and the two met again while she was traveling to promote her debut young adult novel American Street. Salaam wanted to speak to more teens about his experience, and the two created the idea to co-write a young adult novel inspired by Salaam’s experiences.
In the past 20 years, Salaam has become a father, poet, activist and inspirational speaker, sharing his story with others to educate the public about the impact of mass incarceration and police brutality. He regularly advocates for criminal justice reform, prison reform and the abolition of juvenile solitary confinement and capital punishment.
For his efforts, Salaam has received many accolades, such as a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama.
“Punching the Air reflects not only my story, but the stories of millions of young boys and girls of color who face the injustice of mass incarceration and the criminal justice system,” Salaam said. “Books have the power to change the way we think and transform societies. This novel is a continuation of my work to shine a light on the reality of our criminal justice system and inspire young people to advocate for change.”
Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a teenager who has always been an artist and a poet. But Shahid is seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. With an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood that turns into a tragedy, at just 16, Amal’s bright future is upended. He is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sent to prison. In his despair, he finds refuge in his art.
“At the center of Amal’s story is the cycle of racial violence that continues to plague this country,” Zoboi said. “But this is not just a story about a crime or race. It’s about the power of art, faith, and transcendence in the most debilitating circumstances.”
HarperCollins will partner with nonprofit organizations to donate copies of Punching the Air to incarcerated youth across the country. Partners will include The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an organization working to end extreme sentencing for children, and The Children’s Book Council, the nonprofit trade association of children’s book publishers in North America dedicated to supporting the industry and promoting children’s books and reading.
“It’s rare to have the opportunity to publish a book that feels truly essential to the canon of children’s literature—and Punching the Air is such a book,” said Alessandra Balzer, Vice President and Co-Publisher of Balzer + Bray. “Working with Zoboi and Salaam was an incredibly powerful experience. Their writing is unflinching in its indictment of the systemic racism that has led to problems of wrongful conviction and mass incarceration in our country.”