Interview: Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

From the publisher: Dr. Yusef Salaam, a member of “The Exonerated Five” (formerly known as “The Central Park Five”) and Ibi Zoboi, author of Pride and the National Book Award finalist American Street, have collaborated on a young adult novel, Punching the Air

Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a teenager who has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then, one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’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 novel in verse is simply stunning. The poetry is powerful and the story itself is heartbreaking and yet still hopeful. Amal’s story definitely points out some of the major issues with the criminal justice system. It also shows how the education system can also be harmful to young people of color. As a teacher, that was a hard aspect to read about. Amal’s teachers and even his lawyer fail to see his humanity.

All of the Rich in Color contributors are reading Punching the Air right now for our discussion that will be posted on October 7th so be sure to stop back by to participate or read more about the book. In preparation for our discussion, we’re happy to hear from the authors today.

Crystal: The verse format was a brilliant choice for Amal’s story. Was there anything unexpected about writing a novel in verse?

Ibi: I loved how ideas just came to me as I was working through a poem. I’d start a poem as a couplet and then I’d realize that I can shape it into a box or a pyramid. Making shapes out of poems is like collaging or putting puzzle pieces together. The words not only have to fit into the shape, but they have the right metaphor and convey the right mood. It really is art on every level.

Crystal: Do you think we will see more poetry from you?

Ibi: Absolutely. All my novels have had some form of poetry.

Crystal: Yusef, when did you begin to write poetry and what has that writing journey been like?

Yusef: I started writing and paying attention to words when I was very young. Hip-hop had a huge impact on me and I wanted to mimic what some rappers were saying in their lyrics–the ones with message-driven content. Like many other boys growing up in my environment, we wanted the world to hear our words. Hip-hop was one way to get our messages across. I kept writing while incarcerated and it’s what kept my mind free.

Crystal: Ibi, you’ve been writing for young adults for quite some time. Do you feel any specific responsibilities to young readers?

Ibi: Yes, always. I always feel the need to create whole, fully-realized characters. I always return to Adichie’s quote about stereotypes. It’s not that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete. I try my best to create complete characters and stores. Yes, Black children are criminalized, but why? I always strive to paint a bigger picture.

Crystal: What were some of the challenges and benefits of co-writing a novel?

Ibi: There were all benefits. I could’ve tried to write this book alone, but I had someone to help guide the emotions of our teen character. Amal would’ve been a very different boy born of my own limited imagination. With Yusef’s help, we created a fully rounded character with every real hopes and fears. I was able to sink into his skin because of my conversations with Yusef.

Yusef: It was a great experience. It’s amazing how someone I met at a time when I was hiding in plain sight, two years after prison, when the world thought wanted to bury us, wanted to help me tell my story. Back then, I wasn’t ready to share everything. But now, Ibi brought her skills to table and we were able to tell this story–Punching the Air–together.

Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has been published in the New York Times Book Review, the Horn Book magazine, and the Rumpus, among others. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist, received five starred reviews, and was a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, which was a New York Times bestseller, as well as being the editor of the anthology Black Enough. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their three children. You can find her online at

In 1989, Dr. Yusef Salaam was just fifteen years old when he was tried and convicted in the “Central Park Jogger Case” along with four other Black and Latino boys. The Exonerated Five spent between seven to 13 years behind bars, until their sentences were overturned in 2002. Since then, they received a multimillion dollar settlement from the City of New York for its injustice and were profiled in award-winning films, including The Central Park Five documentary from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon and the award-winning Netflix limited series When They See Us, written and directed by Ava DuVernay. 

Over the past two decades, Yusef has become a family man, father, poet, activist, and inspirational speaker. He continues to share 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. Yusef is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama (2016), the Phoenix Award from the Congressional Black Caucus (2019), an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Anointed by God Ministries Alliance & Seminary (2014), and a long list of Proclamations—most notably from New York State Senate (2018), and New York City Council (2013).