Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

Today is the book birthday for Tristan Strong Destroys the World, by Kwame Mbalia!

I pre-ordered it, and while we patiently wait for our copy to arrive, I thought I would pay tribute to the first book- Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in The Sky.

My 9 year old daughter Lola and I both read Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky earlier this year, and it immediately became Lola’s favorite book. I was thrilled that she loved it so much, and also incredibly impressed at the depth of this middle grade book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents Kwame Mbalia’s epic fantasy, a middle grade American Gods set in a richly-imagined world populated with African American folk heroes and West African gods.

Seventh grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy.

But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s notebook. Tristan chases after it–is that a doll?–and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world.

Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price.

Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

One thing that impressed me was how Kwame Mbalia handled Tristan as a 7th grade boy coping after a tragic loss, and his journey through grief. It was nuanced, with layers of pain, happy memories, and learning that it’s ok to feel it all.

Lola especially loved all of the rich characters. Her favorite was Gum Baby, a wooden doll covered in sap, carved by the trickster Spider-god Anansi. She is the first character Tristan meets as he embarks on his magical journey, and serves as both a protagonist in the story and antagonist to Tristan. Gum Baby is absolutely hilarious, and her witty clapbacks and sassy attitude particularly resonated with Lola, because though she’s shy in public, at home she is the clapback queen! She mimics Gum Baby’s little voice on occasion, calling folks “bumbletongue,” and shouting, “Sap attack!” (See pictures above to see Gum Baby, and Lola channeling Gum Baby’s mean mug. Funny enough, as we were taking Lola’s picture, a little chestnut colored rabbit went hopping by not too far away, which sent Lola chasing after it, yelling, “Chestnutt!”, another character from the book.)

I loved the way the book intertwined African American folk tales and culture with West African… reading about Brer Rabbit and friends, John Henry, High John, Anansi, Nyame, the Amaqhira, the Mmoatia, and so on, had us pausing to delve into their stories more, outside of the scope of the book. Lola would have me look up pictures for her, of things like adinkra, bottle trees, and kierie. Additionally, the disconnect between the people of Midpass and Alke, and the quest to unite them against the threatening evil, felt like Africa and the Diaspora coming together for the greater good.

Another aspect of the book that sparked deep conversation between Lola and I was the antagonists themselves, (some of which are visible on the cover of the book.) *SPOILER ALERT* Fetterlings, which were sentient iron monsters in the form of shackles; brandflies, which were flying iron brands; haunted bone ships; hullbeasts, appearing as monsters formed from the hulls of slave ships; the Maafa, literally meaning the African Holocaust; and Uncle C, representing King Cotton himself, were the “big bads” in this book. Lola and I had to opportunity to deep dive into why these things were evil, both in reality and in the book. To use them as villains in a magical adventure, where they could be overcome and taken out by forces of good, was a stroke of genius. And Tristan’s discovery that he is an Anansesem, whose power lies in being a Storyteller, beautifully represented the importance of keeping history and stories alive, and the power of words.

All in all, this is a wonderful Middle Grade book, full of laughter, adventure, tears, and rich in history and culture. We rate it 5 out of 5 boxing gloves 🥊🥊🥊🥊🥊 and recommend it for all ages!

We are anxiously awaiting our copy of Tristan Strong Destroys the World, so stay tuned for a review once Lola and I have finished it!

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