Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky will tear at your heartstrings as it craftily deals with grief and highlights the power of storytelling. Since the creation of the Rick Riordan Presents banner at Disney/Hyperion, middle school readers and adults have had the chance to explore mythologies all over the world with a variety of characters. Kwame Mbalia has added another treasure to the literary world with his book Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
The book focuses on a young middle schooler named Tristan Strong from Chicago. Tristan has experienced severe trauma in the last few weeks. His best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan blames himself for not helping his friend. His Nana and Granddad come up for his debut boxing match, and Tristan loses. The young boy is grieving the loss of his best friend, feels like he has let down his family, and is lost in a flurry of emotions that he doesn’t understand.
His parents decide that it would be best for Tristan to get away and spend a month at the family farm in Alabama with his Nana and Granddad. How Mbalia chronicled the drive Tristan endures with his grandparents back to their home in Alabama is literary beauty. No matter your age, you will be able to immerse yourself in poor Tristan’s shoes as he sits in the car, endures the taunts of his Granddad and the nurturing of his Nana. Everyone has had a hundred moments like this drive that they can connect to.
Life in Alabama is short for Tristan. Awoken by a talking doll named Gum Baby who appears in his room on his first night, Tristan races off into the dark night chasing Gum Baby and hoping to recapture the journal his friend Eddie wrote that Gum Baby took. Mbalia infuses Tristan with just the right amount of grief, and a small ounce of anger that is unleashed when Tristan reaches the Bottle Tree. Here he argues with Gum Baby, and the raw anger that has settled beneath the grief of losing his friend bubbles over. Tristan wraps his hand in the backpack with Eddie’s journal, and punches hard against the tree. The tradition of hanging a blue bottle on a tree to ward off evil spirits was brought to North America by slaves. This folklore was continued by Tristan’s family. The moment his anger unleashes, he smashes the top bottle, and then the world opens and swallows Tristan and Gum Baby.
The narrative accelerates from this point. Tristan is brought to another world called MidPass where he meets humans and mythological creatures alike. Rescued with Gum Baby, Tristan encounters such heroic figures as African-American legends like John Henry, High John, Brer Rabbit, and Brer Fox, and African gods like Anansi, and Nyame. Along with these mythological characters, Tristan meets residents of this other world like Ayanna and Thandiwe and together they partner up to solve the problem created by Tristan.
When he broke that bottle on the Bottle Tree, Tristan created a hole in the MidPass sky which grew larger and unleashed a vicious group called the Maafa. With their metallic monsters called Fetterlings, the Maffa have been kidnapping everyone they could. Tristan is blamed and expected to help fix the problem he created.
Poor Tristan is thrown into a world that doesn’t seem real, populated with people he knows only from stories, and is forced to be the hero. Tristan Strong hasn’t felt strong since the day his friend died. Running from the memory of Eddie’s death, Tristan has avoided the painful memory of that fateful day. All the therapy sessions and chores on his family farm won’t erase the memory of what happen to Eddie.
The main enemy that is controlling the evil that effects MidPass is known as Uncle C. Thinking he was torturing Tristan by stealing all his happy memories of Eddie and only leaving the painful memory of his death, Uncle C helped Tristan in the long run. The journey may seem impossible, but for the time Tristan spends in this other world, he grows in maturity, strength, and confidence. The boy who thought he wasn’t a boxer learns to be a warrior physically and mentally.
Paired with folk heroes like John Henry and High John, Tristan cannot lose. Tristan seems to have a disconnect with his family. He doesn’t feel like he can talk to them about what is happening, and the advice he receives from them is less than helpful. Fighting and living alongside heroic characters like High John and John Henry, Tristan learns that those who are not always helping you have your best interest at heart, and those who seem to be your enemy may not really be the enemy.
Writer Kwame Mbalia has created a novel of such depth and wonder that turning each page led me through to another adventure about characters that I had heard about but now want to know more. The author has not only created a humorous tale of adventure and heroism, Mbalia has crafted a tightly woven narrative about the power of grief, how it can destabilize you, and what one needs to do to move on while not forgetting. I can just imagine the countless middle school readers who will pick up this book and identify with what Tristan is feeling.
By allowing grief to be a topic of exploration, Mbalia has enabled the opening of a conversation that is so often difficult to begin. How do you go on when someone so close to you dies? Tristan seems like he is drowning in the real world. When he passes through that hole in the ground to MidPass, though he lands in a world in conflict, it is here that Tristan truly learns to move on. He does so by embracing his grief and recognizing the power that storytelling has.
Tristan Strong can weave a story much like the god of storytelling Anansi. It is through the power of storytelling that Tristan can prevail. He can hook and jab like any boxer, but it is when Tristan spins a story to his worst enemy that he prevails on the battlefield.
This is the seventh book in the Rick Riordan Presents banner and I continue to wonder when the quality of the stories will falter. When I start these books, I keep thinking that certainly this will be the book that fails. Not every mythology story for middle grade students can be a success, right? Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is not an only a success, it is a homerun of a story. The characters are compelling and beautifully written. A reader can easily visualize John Henry swinging his hammer in battle or watch Brer Fox leap into the storm of Fetterlings to help his friends get to safety. Readers will shed a tear for Tristan as he grieves his lost friend, and they will laugh constantly as Tristan’s sidekick Gum Baby chews every page that she is in.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is brilliant. Perfectly written with depth and humor, crafted with the greatest care and detail, readers will want more of this world that author Kwame Mbalia has brought to the page.
4 stars out of 4. Kwame Mbalia has written an emotionally intelligent, socially relevant tale. He has not only created a story that will connect with every reader regardless of their age, Mbalia has brought to the page the tales of High John and John Henry, which more readers need to read about.