VIDEO: “Art can be liberating, art is redemptive, and art is healing,” Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam on their YA novel-in-verse Punching the Air

“Hope is the thing that drives us forward,” says Dr. Yusuf Salaam of naming his novel’s main character Amal, which means hope. “Because without hope we wouldn’t see a positive future, we wouldn’t imagine the opportunity to change the criminal justice system from the criminal system of injustice to the criminal justice system.”

Dr. Salaam – a poet, activist and one of the exonerated five – along with bestselling children’s book author Ibi Zoboi co-wrote Punching the Air (HarperCollins 2020), a young adult novel-in-verse which tells the story of a 16 year old boy named Amal who is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Amal’s story was inspired by Dr. Salaam’s own experiences with criminal injustice system: at 15 years old he and four other Black and Latino teenagers were arrested and wrongfully convicted in the Central Park Jogger case, spending years in prison before being exonerated by the confession of the true perpetrator.

We at Black Market Reads are excited to share a video recording of Lissa’s conversation with Dr. Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi, recorded in October of 2020. We also want to thank our friends at Rain Taxi Review of Books for organizing this event and giving is permission to share the recording. We hope you enjoy it!

This recording took place as part of Rain Taxi’s 20th Annual Twin Cities Book Festival, held live online from October 15-17. For versions of these and other literary discussions please visit

The Twin Cities Book Festival is a project of Rain Taxi, which champions aesthetically adventurous literature through publications, events, and service to the literary community.

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