Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Tristan Strong #1) by Kwame Mbalia.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 484 pages.
Lexile: HL680L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 15.0 points) .
Tristan Strong’s lost his first big match as a boxer and is sent to stay with his grandparents in Alabama. His deceased friend Eddie’s journal, with a mysterious glow only he can see, keeps ending up in his bag although he didn’t pack it. When a strange thief tries to steal the book, Tristan fights back… even if it means disturbing a bottle tree, unleashing an ancient evil, and falling into the land of Alke.
Confession: I liked this book very much, but didn’t love it, and can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps I’m burnt out on MG fantasy? Over the past three years, I’ve read more than a hundred, so MG fantasy has taken up a larger than normal portion of my free reading lately. So many aspects I loved, somehow didn’t quite coalesce for me. Three times I put this down to finish reading another book that felt more compelling. Yet at the same time, I kept coming back and wanting to finish. I’ll definitely get the next book in the series.
Mbalia’s worldbuilding is excellent. His villains in particular strike the perfect balance for middle grade – the stuff of nightmares but not invincible, firmly grounded in myth, history, and real fears, and many with complex backstory or growth patterns. I loved the endpaper maps of Alke and want a poster for my wall!
Also, I appreciated that he didn’t follow the RRP template. This far in to the imprint, plus reading widely in the genre, there is definitely a difference between those who write a Riordan-style series with different cultural trappings, and authors with their own unique ideas. Both are important but the latter tend to have more longevity.
Mbalia’s action focuses mainly on the power of stories, and when I got to this passage, I instantly thought of Dr. Debbie Reese, founder of the popular American Indians in Children’s Literature blog:
“But soon the different lands of Alke discovered that some stories are too potent to be exchanged freely by ordinary people. The tales’ meanings can be distorted if they are shared without guidance.”page 346
What Tristan learns about stories, especially the second sentence, is exactly what Reese talks about when she discusses the concept of ‘curtains’ in children’s literature. I was happy to see it. Several diverse middle-grade fantasy novels focus on the power of storytelling, and would make an interesting comparison.
Black authors writing this type of fantasy have a unique challenge. Some readers will have no idea about any of the base stories mentioned, and will need to be quickly informed. Others will have significantly different base level knowledge and might not want a repeat of common information. Still others (African immigrants or families from elsewhere in the African diaspora) might have a completely different experience of the same cultural symbols.
Different workarounds for this exist, but Mbalia takes a bold approach – he openly and clearly combines West African and Black American inspiration into a single, yet not whole, world. This topic might need a separate post. I admire Mbalia’s choice, yet writing about this also makes me wonder if the exposition needed to make that work is where he lost me.
Another reason could be that I prefer female protagonists. Working on my large diverse MG fantasy booklist made this clear, and had me pushing myself to seek out more male main characters. Boxing is also just not a sport that I have much interest in, although this title caught my son’s eye, so there’s a definite need for a fantasy novel with a boxing, bookworm male protagonist.
The end, where we finally learn what happened to Anansi (heavy clues have been dropped, so savvy readers might already have figured it out) was definitely my favorite. All of Mbalia’s heavy worldbuilding and plot build-up paid off, and he took the story in an unexpected direction. I read a summary of the next volume, and it seems much more interesting to me.
Parents and teachers will want to know that there are references to slavery (most oblique), fighting, some theft/consideration of theft, ghosts, and some peril. Dialect is used. Tristan’s feelings about his friend who died in front of him are explored, and his grandfather has outdated ideas about male toughness. Honestly though, this was one of the more mild MG fantasies in terms of content and I can think of several elementary students I would hand this to with no concerns. Even the scary things are not so terrifying eventually.
While the content is not adult, the length and cultural references would be considerations for me in deciding whether this would be a good fit for a particular student. Kids who know nothing about African-American history may get confused, and some readers might not have the stamina to finish. An especially good choice for boxing fans who must read a fantasy novel for a genre assignment. Recommended.