This post is also available in: العربية

HarperCollins Children’s Books is to be publish a Young Adult (YA) novel co-written by Yusef Salaam, one of the so-called ‘Exonerated Five’ – the group of black and Latino teenagers who were for years known as the Central Park Five and who were falsely accused of the rape of a white jogger in Central Park in 1989.

Punching the Air is written with Haitian-American YA novelist Ibi Zoboi, whose American Street was shortlisted for a National Book Award.  It tells the story of a black Muslim teenager, Amal Shahid, who is wrongfully sentenced to prison.  Shahid is an artist who, even in a diverse school, is seen as disruptive and unmotivated in a biased system. One fateful night an altercation in a gentrified neighbourhood escalates into tragedy. Suddenly, at just 16 years old, his bright future is taken away from him: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost defeat him until he turns to the refuge of his art.

The plot has echoes of Salaam’s own experience.  Salaam was 15 when he and four other black and Latino boys were falsely accused in New York’s Central Park jogger rape case.  The story made headlines around the world and led to the word ‘wilding’ – meaning the behaviour of a gang of youths on a violent rampage – entering the language.  He was convicted, and sent to prison for assault and rape in 1989, with the conviction overturned in 2002.  In 2014, the five successful sued New York City for $41m.

Salaam and Zoboi met in a class at Hunter College in  1999, two years after Salaam was released from prison.  They met again in 2002 when Zoboi was promoting her debut novel  and the idea to co-write a young adult novel, inspired in part by Salaam’s experiences, was born.

Salaam says: “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. 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 the criminal justice system in the U.S. and inspire young people to advocate for change.”

Alessandra Balzer, vice-president and co-publisher of Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books US and Harriet Wilson, publishing director at HarperCollins Children’s Books UK, secured world English rights from Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency in Maine, USA. Film and TV rights are being handled by ICM Partners.  The book will be published simultaneously in the UK and US on 1st September 2020.  Nasher understands that Arabic rights are still available.

Wilson said: “I am extremely proud to be publishing Amal’s story for a UK audience. While set in the US penal system, this story speaks to us all, challenging us to examine the deep injustices in our societies.”