Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Review by Ciara Javier

Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, 2019

496 pages, hardcover, $23.49 CAD, 978-1-368-03993-2

Ages 10+, Grades 5-8

Middle Grade, Fantasy

Nana used to tell me stories about how, over in Africa, before the horrors of slavery, people used to fly all the time. They’d whisper the powerful words, the phrases dripping in old magic, and shoot off into the sky. Brothers raced sisters. Mothers and fathers carried babies over shining lakes and snow-covered mountains.

Then came the chains and ships, and pain and whips, and the people’s wings fell or were torn off. But the words of power were never forgotten. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, after a brutal day of working in blistering-hot fields, the elders would whisper them into the ears of those who needed it most, and whoosh, off people would soar toward freedom.

After losing his best friend Eddie in an accident, Tristan Strong is sent to his grandparents’ home in Alabama to heal from the loss. But on his first night there, Tristan encounters a sticky doll who attempts to steal Eddie’s journal, which contains folklores from both their grandmothers, and is Tristan’s last remaining connection to Eddie. In an attempt to reclaim the journal, Tristan accidentally falls into a chasm and finds himself in a world filled with haunted bone ships, iron monsters, and African gods.

This book is everything I love about the middle grade genre. It’s fun and action-packed, with Mbalia’s prose creating a vivid and intimidatingly real image of heroes, gods, and villains. It’s also full of heart and is underscored with cold hard truths that even adult novels are often too afraid to broach. It does not shy away from heavier subjects such as slavery, grief, survivor’s guilt, and carrying the weight of the world—and worse, your parents’ expectations—on your shoulders.

Most importantly, this book allows Black characters to be real, bonafide people and Black children to see themselves as heroes and heroines—even gods. Tristan is a young and fiery tween who questions the world of adults, an imaginative storyteller who carries history in his words, and a grief-stricken boy mourning his best friend. He is physically strong—a fighter who can fend off iron monsters—but also finds strength in the way he uses his words to make a difference:

It was my job to carry the stories of the land to its people. All the stories. If we ignored the past, how would we learn from it?

Tristan Strong is the perfect example of the different ways someone can be a hero.

Written in first-person so readers can experience firsthand the trials and tribulations of Tristan’s adventures, Mbalia’s easygoing prose not only makes this mythological world come to life, but the story’s foray into Black history fun and approachable. That said, at times there are pacing issues that make this book longer than what is typical of middle grade. It builds into a number of obstacles and twists even before the midpoint, which can make the story feel slower and drawn out, clocking in at almost 500 pages.

Still, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is a heartfelt and action-filled novel that serves as a perfect introduction into African-American mythology and folklore, as well as Black American history. A mix of Harry Potter and Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, it’s exactly the kind of book that middle grade readers need more of. Not only that, it’s a book this generation of Black youth deserves.

Ciara Javier is a Political Science and Creative Writing undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. She thinks television and books are ridiculously addictive and drinks should always be cold.

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