When life knocks you down, the only way to survive is to keep punching. That is the message behind Kwame Mbalia’s epic Tristan Strong Keeps Punching which brings the Tristan Strong trilogy to a close. Mbalia has a difficult task to achieve with his latest outing. Not only must he bring the series to a satisfying conclusion, but he needs to tell an amazing story. I am so happy and content to report that Mbalia has outdone himself with the third outing of Tristan Strong.
In the latest book from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, Mbalia has set the action in our world, and the gods and villains of Alke are lost amongst the millions in our communities. For Tristan Strong, it’s important to find the people of Alke and to preserve the stories that give the gods of Alke power.
At the heart of this action-packed novel is the fact that Tristan is trying to preserve the stories of the gods and heroes of African and Black mythology. While doing this, Tristan has come to learn that there are stories everywhere that connect the mythology with the real-world history of America. This middle grade novel is not only an absolute thrill to read but will help students develop a greater understanding of our society and of modern-day issues.
Starting off in New Orleans at a Strong family reunion, Tristan, with his godly gifts from Alke, sees through the happiness and joy which exists on the surface veneer of tourists’ faces and the façades of buildings. New Orleans is a city built on violence from the slave trade. This historical violence that has been buried amongst the city streets is the perfect lure for King Cotton. This vile monster of Alke is free to gobble up the magic and spirit of history and the residual suffering implanted on the world. Cotton is preying on the hidden ghosts of history to fuel his campaign to take over the world.
There are monsters and ghosts, and many epic battles throughout the book. Being friends with gods like John Henry, High John, Keelboat Annie, and Anansi, is not something everyone will experience, but every reader should place themselves in the shoes of Tristan Strong. The anger and violence that Tristan experiences is not just because of some fabled monster. The violence and anger of modern day has affected Tristan more than any mythical monster.
Much like how HBO’s The Watchmen woke up the world to the Tulsa race riots, Mbalia has used historical fact as a spine to support his narrative. The spotlight is brought back to the massacres of black soldiers during the Civil War at Fort Pillow and the wholesale terror reaped upon the black citizens of National City. For Tristan, travelling up the Mississippi River in current day is proving to be more dangerous than anything he experienced in Alke.
Throughout the book, Tristan teems up with the Alke gods, and his friends Ayanna, Junior, and Gum Baby to help deliver a decisive blow in stopping King Cotton. While the friendships are fleshed out well on the page, it’s the growing love hate relationship that Tristan has with Gum Baby that brings levity to the story. Gum Baby and Tristan have had their differences, but their friendship has been the backbone of the story.
Gum Baby was the inanimate doll of a legend that comes alive for this series, and the female personality of Gum Baby clashes with Tristan on so many levels, that the seriousness of the books have been lightened thanks to Tristan and Gum Baby’s bickering banter. Tristan Strong Keeps Punching elevates their relationship beyond the necessity of working together to friends. Gum Baby matures with Tristan, and the pint-sized tag along in this book is far different than when readers first meet her. This is an older, seasoned Gum Baby, who doesn’t hesitate to insult Tristan, but also proves her value and love for him.
What makes Tristan Strong Keeps Punching such an incredible read is the story. Mbalia has brought to the page for middle graders and readers of any age mythologies that have been pushed aside or satirized in a negative light in the past. The spirits of a story, and the echo left behind by an event leaves a story imprint on the land and the people who live there. While the quest to stop Cotton is the focal point of the book, Mbalia takes his time to show how magic and belief exists in children, and how their unquestioned ability to believe is what makes a story real, viable, and everlasting. His creativity in weaving this final Tristan Strong tale is heightened when he introduces Spirit John.
High John the Conqueror, a legendary god of Alke is also found in the form of Spirit John from the 1800’s. This ghost of a god follows Tristan and aides him on his journey, but for much of the book he can only be seen by Tristan. Thanks to Tristan’s abilities, he can help his friends see Spirit John. Mbalia reminds us that it is easy to ignore, and it is easy to forget, but sometimes the power of a good story will help everyone recognize what has been in front of their eyes the whole time.
Layered amongst the many historical truths brought to light for readers to discover, we get an excellent look at how a teenager deals with the death of his friend. The trilogy of books takes place over one summer, and now in Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, we see the heartbroken Tristan moving into the final stages of grief over the death of his friend Eddie. With such competing stories taking place simultaneously, one would assume that the message of the story could be lost. Not so! Kwame Mbalia has built a fantastical world, with rich complex characters that are vivid in the violence of the past and the hope for the future.
Readers will have no difficulty in stepping into the shoes of Tristan Strong and seeing the world through his eyes. A good author will make you like the main character and root for them to succeed. A great author will help the readers empathize with the main character, see the world through their eyes, and help you reflect on all that you have been missing. Kwame Mbalia is a great author.
Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is set for release on October 5th. If you haven’t read any of the Tristan Strong books, what are you waiting for?
You can also join Kwame Mbalia’s promotional tour for the book.
Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving