Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam talk hope and poetry in their novel in verse, Punching the Air

"Hope is knowing that there is always another day, another minute, another second to make things right."


Punching the Air is a powerful YA novel written by award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five. A powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated, Punching the Air tells a moving 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.

At just sixteen years old, Amal Shahid’s bright future is upended: he 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?

We had the honour of chatting with Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam about their spellbinding novel.

Congratulations on the nomination! And thank you for writing such an important story. Can you recommend one piece of documentary/news story etc that is related to Punching the Air so readers can know more about the backstory/the inspiration behind the story?

Thank you! We are truly honored. We recommend The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, When They See Us the series (a fictional account of the Central Park Five), 13th the documentary both by Ava Duvernay, as well as Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Yusef Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn. All these documentaries as well as the Netflix series feature teens who were either caught up in the criminal justice system or victims of racist and violent attacks.

What was the writing process like? What’s the greatest challenge when writing together?

Much of our writing process involved lots of conversations. Yusef shared a lot about his personal journal and epiphanies over the course of being incarcerated as a teen. While Punching the Air is not Yusef’s exact story, it is inspired by the stories of so many young people across the United States. So our conversations were both personal and universal. The poems capture Yusef’s observation about himself and young people who are in his situation. I had to task of summing it all up with deeply emotional poems.

The spaces and the positioning of the words on the page carry such weight and importance. How did you decide on the spacing and how the verses are presented?

Yes, the white space on the page was part of the poetry and storytelling. The spaces also represent the unknown, a life that is not fully realized. Both Yusef and I grew up listening to early hip-hop where the lyrics used to convey a message over a catchy beat. So the way that poems are shaped represents a certain rhythm and cadence. We wanted the words to convey the emotion of feeling trapped yet having hope.

The protagonist is called Amal, which means hope. What does hope mean to you?

Hope is knowing that there is always another day, another minute, another second to make things right. Hope is also knowing that you are loved and cared for, even in the darkest time. It’s knowing that you hold a certain truth in your heart even when the world labels you a liar and criminal. Hope is what kept both Yusef and Amal alive.

If you can choose a hip-hop artist to recreate Punching the Air into an album, who would you pick?

Yusef chooses Nas. He’s a native New Yorker and is from the same generation. It would be such a dope album!

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (HarperCollins) has been shortlisted for the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. The winners of the Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards 2022 will be announced on 16 June. For more information visit carnegiegreenaway.org.uk

Grab a copy of Punching the Air here.

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