BWW Review: TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY by Kwame Mbalia
"I'm not a hero. I'm a boy with a crew straight out of a dusty fairy-tale book, and everybody expects me to confront beasts and monsters and fly around on a raft. I don't even like flying. I'm scared of heights."
~TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY
Disney Hyperion's Rick Riordan Presents line has another brand-new series to add to its growing family. This time, we get to dive into African mythology. Readers may knew Anansi if they read ANANSI THE SPIDER in school, and older readers may know a little from Neil Gaiman's ANANSI BOYS or may remember Br'er Rabbit from the long-banned Disney movie Song of the South. But do they know other heroes such as John Henry or Nyame?
Tristan Strong comes from a family of boxers. A family of winners. When he loses his first boxing match, he disappoints his father and grandfather, and winds up getting shipped off to his grandparents' farm in Alabama. He's also grieving, mourning an accident that killed his best friend Eddie. He carries Eddie's journal with him, working on their school project that retells the African myths of their youth. But on the trip, the journal starts glowing. His first night at the farm, Tristan is awoke by an intruder in the room -- Gum Baby, a sticky, loud-mouthed, sentient doll who steals Eddie's journal and flees. Running after him, Tristan winds up in the forest his grandmother forbid him from visiting -- and punches one of her bottle trees, breaking a bottle, unleashing evil, and causing a hole to appear in the sky.
That hole bridges our world with Alke, a parallel world called the "dream to your world's reality. The tales, the fables, the things you think are made up, they exist here. We aren't just stories -- we're real, with hopes and dreams and fears just like you." Tristan joins a girl named Ayanna and a host of characters he knows from the myths he grew up with who are, in fact, real beings. They're on the run from the Maafa and bone ships out to enslave them. The gang jumps from one encounter to the next, and Tristan learns that he is an Anansesem, a storyteller. The world tells him a story and he listens, then weaves the story into reality. And there are people who will do anything to get their hands on his powers...
In some ways, Tristan Strong punches its own hole into the Rick Riordan Presents universe. Most of the books up until now have taken place in our world and our reality, with kids discovering their powers and the secrets of their heritage. For this series, Tristan falls into another world and is bestowed powers he wouldn't have in our world. His power is also seriously cool. As a fellow writer myself, I would love a power connected to storytelling. Words are their own weapons. As Tristan laments at one point, he may not have a sword or bow and arrow like other heroes, but that doesn't make him any less of a hero. And in the spirit of other books in the line, ordinary objects are bestowed with extraordinary magic. In this case, it is Tristan's bracelet, with Ananshi's adinkra charm for storytelling and Nyame's adinkra charm for focus and clarity. There is also a really, really cool, useful item created in the book's final moments, and I want so badly to mention it here because it's one of my favorite magic-infused tools, but it's super-spoilery and will likely play a huge role in the sequel.
There was a large cast of characters at play and the story has fast pacing, moving from one leg of the adventure to the next, to the next, to the next. The adventure will keep young readers on their toes and enthralled, waiting to see if Tristan and his friends will escape or win or find what they need, completely invested in the journey. A lot of the nuanced symbolism revolving around slavery may go over younger readers heads, but many will experience solidarity with issues such as enormous parental expectation or the loss of a loved one, and possibly even survivor's guilt. I love that so many books in this line don't shy away from harder issues or dumb them down for the audience. Kids experience as much as adults do, and yet adults want to shield them from the horrors of the world. If they're shielded too much and various topics are never discussed, they may not have the tools they need to process what they're experiencing or realizing that they're not alone. I love that these books don't shy away from the tough stuff to "protect the kids" and instead bring up mature topics or have kids going through the unthinkable. It's one of the things that makes these books so great and helps them resonate with readers young and old, keeping them popular and well-loved. TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE UNIVERSE may stand apart from its peers in terms of world-building and its questing elements, but its heart beats the same drum and is still a commendable inclusion in the line.
TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY by Kwame Mbalia publishes October 15, 2019 from Disney Hyperion.