Let’s just establish, right away, that though I gave Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky only three stars out of five (I think, generously), I will still be recommending it. Sometimes books are important for a reason, but maybe they’re not the world’s best book. They fill a void. And until that niche expands, well, you’ve got what you’ve got. Tristan Strong is experiencing a lot of popularity right now, and though that often happens in middle grades to mediocre books, at least this time it’s an important mediocre book.
Already, I know some people will disagree with me and say the writing is great, what am I talking about? There are some things about Kwame Mbalia’s writing that I can appreciate: the character development (at least for a popular MG book), the up-to-date accessibility (and humor) of his main character, Tristan, and the imagination, for a start. I suppose there is also a fair amount of research done there, too, though I wouldn’t be one to tell you whether it was accurate or not. (I mean, this is a fantastical world, but it is also based on existing folklore and religion to an extent.) Well, let’s talk about what this book is.
Tristan Strong is a third-generation boxer who has just miserably lost his first bout, when his grandparents show up at his Chicago home. They are taking him to their Alabama farm in order to work and heal from the death of his best friend, Eddie, a death that Tristan blames on himself. Right away, strange things start happening, and the journal that the boys had used to write down Nana’s stories starts to glow, a mouthy, sticky baby doll breaks into his room at night, and a grove in the forest where the Bottle Tree sits seems to have a presence about it. In traditional fantasy style, Tristan falls through a hole in the earth into a magical place full of the African American and African gods, normally at odds but being attacked by the same, growing menace. Tristan discovers that he may have caused this mayhem, but that he also might be the hero.
Well, let’s see. This book is special because it introduces children to African and African American characters and stories from across the centuries. It also has a number of very strong, positive Black role models, including all of the main characters and indeed, almost all the characters. It’s also special because Tristan’s strengths lie in three areas: boxing (physical strength), sure, but also in storytelling. Storytelling is actually portrayed as a super-power, which is pretty cool and relevant to the culture portrayed. The third? Character. Tristan is not a static character, and though he starts off a “good kid,” he still has to grow in several areas in order to rise to the occasion. Another thing, there’s always the tension there of kid-adult relationships, but there are many loving relationships in this book and plenty of great authority figures. Many, many middle grades books don’t even come close to walking this wire as skillfully as Mbalia does.
So why would I give Tristan Strong a “generous” three stars? The writing and plotting. Basically, though the fantasy elements, depth, and characters shine, the rest of it is only passable. Actually, sometimes not even passable. The plot itself is rapid, sure, but not compelling. Things just happen, and you’re not exactly sure where you’re headed next, not really clear on what the bigger picture is. It’s so rapid, in fact, that it’s muddled. And Mbalia’s writing often devolves into one of my biggest writing pet peeves: not making spatial sense. In fact, I’m pretty sure this book may be the worst I’ve ever seen, in this category. Many times, a character would show up where they couldn’t be based on the description a moment before, or a character would show up when you had assumed something else about them or someone would touch something or grab something even though they were far away or—and this was a big one—the POV character, Tristan, would see something he couldn’t possibly have seen (through walls, at a great distance, etc.). Things would happen simultaneously that didn’t make sense, time would conveniently stretch out so that a conversation could take place while an enemy approached… I think you get it. In other words, while we’re buying into the characters and, a little less so, the overall story, the scenes broke down time and time again due to imprecise storyboarding. And it’s clunky. Including the dialogue.
Wait, what? That’s what I kept thinking. Or, nuh-uh. Can’t be.
Which of course really disturbs our ability to be lost in the story, experiencing this very modern and kid-oriented fantasy world. Perhaps part of what could have helped was more description of places, but I think it’s really just poor description that does it, here. And another thing: the allegory or symbolism. I’m torn on this, because the symbolism is there and it could be explored, but I think it’ll go over most middle grades readers’ heads. I mean, you have this whole Africa versus African American thing going on (Midpass being a reference to the African diaspora via the Middle Passage and the gods being from the Old or New World stories), and you have the great evil of African Slavery repeated in ever-worsening, ever more disturbing characters (including King Cotton, creatures made of manacles, creatures made of old dilapidated ships, even cargo holds), AND you have the dying of the stories/pain and suffering not being talked about. Bottling things up creates tension and disruption. There are so many layers and so much allusion that it’s both one of the best aspects of the book and also perhaps too much for a popular middle grades book. It would have to be studied to be appreciated by most kids, I think. And by appreciated, I mean absorbed.
In the end, you have a very typical fantasy story with compelling characters and growth that ends in a very typical way. With strong Black characters, a healthy relationship with authority, and the sharing of African and African American story and culture (not to mention a whole lot of historical and ideological symbolism), it’s a book that I think kids should read, but don’t expect me to read it again. I can’t handle the writing (specifically the scene set-ups) again and I certainly can’t see this book being used to teach literature, despite it’s glorifying of story-telling.
Let me also make two other reading suggestions, which could be supplemental or read without Tristan:
- The Annotated African American Folktales, Henry Louis Gates Jr.
- African Myths and Folktales, Carter Godwin Woodson