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Black History Reads: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (2019)

Are you struggling to find a book that you and your kids will enjoy, which is both a fun adventure story and rooted in mythology? If so, you are in luck! Today we will highlight the middle-grade book Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and discuss the mythologies at the core of the book.

Seventh-grader Tristan Strong in deep emotional turmoil at the start of this story. He’s been sent away to his grandparent’s farm in Alabama for a month to heal from a personal tragedy; Tristan’s best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan feels guilty about the fact that he could not save him. The only remnant of his friend is the journal in which he recorded all sorts of stories told to him by his parents and grandparents.

On Tristan’s first night there, the journal is stolen by a small, surprisingly loud, and sticky doll. Tristan pursues the interloper into the backyard, and they fight over it in the shadow of a large, old tree. Enraged, Tristan punches the tree, falling through the hole into the world of Midpass, a place where there are boiling seas and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants one by one. Once there, he meets African American folk heroes such as John Henry and Brer Rabbit who are exhausted in fighting these creatures. The only way that Tristan can go back is to find Anansi the Weaver to come out of hiding and to fix the hole in the sky. But what is the price that Tristan is willing to pay to help his friends and mend his mistakes?

Fig. 1: Book cover for "Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky"(2019).

This story was an extremely entertaining read, which focused not only on Tristan’s character growth, but also on the nature of grief and the power of using stories to help someone cope with that grief. Furthermore, I enjoyed the way that Kwame Mbalia weaved stories from the Black oral tradition into the overall plot of the story. One of my favorite characters in the book was Anansi, the mysterious figure for whom Tristan is searching. Anansi is a spider god, a trickster figure who appears a lot in African folklore (an example of an Anansi tale can be found in our collection here). Once Black people were forcibly brought to America against their will, the main protagonist in their oral traditions changed; instead of the main character being a spider god, instead it transformed into a wily rabbit, set amid a cast of other animal companions, the main antagonist Brer Fox who is always trying to eat Brer Rabbit.

Reading this story also made me want to go back and read some of the original Brer Rabbit stories, which were reproduced by Joel Chandler Harris in the 1880’s. The origins of these narratives are primarily from West Africa, which were expanded and elaborated upon by Black people in America. Other stories of this kind “have their roots in European and Native American folklore.”[1] You can find a lot of the Brer Rabbit stories online for free through Project Gutenberg.

Once you finish this book, you might want to know what happens afterwards. You are in luck since there is not one but two sequels in this series. The next book in this series is called Tristan Strong Destroys the World, and the follow-up novel is titled Tristan Strong Keeps Punching. If you prefer science fiction rather than fantasy, you can read Last Gate of the Emperor, also written by Kwame Mbalia in collaboration with Prince Joel David Makonnen.

Have you read the Tristan Strong series and liked it? If so, please let us know in the comments!

[1] Bickley, R. "Uncle Remus Tales." New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jul 23, 2018.

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