Middle-grade fiction by Kwame Mbalia
Rick Riordan Presents delivers another engaging, kid-friendly, mythological tale in Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. When the story opens, Tristan Strong isn’t having the most ideal seventh-grade year. His best buddy, Eddie, died in a school bus crash, and Tristan blames himself for not being able to save him. All he has left of Eddie is the journal in which his friend wrote down folktales told by Tristan’s Nana.
Tristan’s getting into fights at school, but in the boxing ring, where family tradition dictates he should shine, he loses his first match. He’s sent to his grandparents’ farm in Alabama to heal and regroup, but truth to tell, he’d rather be anywhere else.
From the start of his visit, the trees on the farm seem to be whispering to him, and Eddie’s journal begins to glow. On Tristan’s first night at his grandparents’ farm, a sticky, doll-like creature called Gum Baby steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan gives chase, they struggle over the book beneath a Bottle Tree, and during the fight, Tristan slugs the tree.
That fateful punch rips open a hole into the MidPass, a land where the characters of black American folklore (John Henry, Brer Rabbit, and so forth) are real. As Tristan and Gum Baby fall through, he discovers a “haint” that had been imprisoned in the tree has now come along with them into this new world. It tries to convince Tristan to hand over Eddie’s journal because, as everyone knows, stories have power.
Once in MidPass, Tristan encounters a world in torment. The sea is burning, and haunted Bone Ships and iron monsters called Fetterlings are hunting the MidPass inhabitants. Although the story tone is mostly heroic or quippy (Gum Baby in particular delivers comic relief), Mbalia plumbs darker subject matter when it comes to his antagonists. The Bone Ships, brand flies, and Fetterlings echo the horrors of the slave trade, lending the story welcome depth. And the author isn’t afraid to drop some truth into what’s essentially a middle-school Hero’s Journey:
“Nana used to tell me stories about how, over in Africa, before the horrors of slavery, people used to fly all the time. 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.”
Teaming up with his new allies, Tristan tries to fix the harm he’s done by enticing the African god Anansi to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster god is always a dicey thing. Can Tristan save this world before losing more of his friends and the things he loves? Young readers will gobble up every word of this story to find out.
Full disclosure: This book was given to me by NetGalley, in exchange for an unbiased review.
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