Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Tristan Strong #1)

by Kwame Mbalia (Author)

Reading Level: 4th − 5th Grade
Series: Tristan Strong

Seventh grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he's going to spend on his grandparents' farm in Alabama, where he's being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie's notebook. Tristan chases after it--is that a doll?--and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree.

In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature's hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

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Kirkus Reviews

Readers who want more than just a taste of Alke will be eager for future books. Most human characters, like Tristan, are black with brown skin. A worthy addition to the diverse array of offerings from Rick Riordan Presents. 


Perfectly paced, this cinematic adventure never drags, anchored by Tristan’s conversational narration and balanced by his struggle to cope with a friend’s passing. It brims with heart, humor, and action, successfully crafting a beautifully unified secondary world that brings the power of stories to glorious life.

Publishers Weekly

In this triumphant middle grade debut inspired by West African mythology and African-American folk tales, black seventh grader Tristan Strong is sent from Chicago to spend the summer on his grandparents' Alabama farm. His best friend has just died, and he's lost a boxing match (much to his boxing family's disappointment). When a talking doll named Gum Baby steals his prized book of stories-- which has mysteriously begun to glow--Tristan pursues, accidentally tearing a hole between the farm and the myriad lands of Alke. There, he encounters legendary folk heroes such as hammer-swinging John Henry and wily Brer Fox, whose people are being captured and enslaved by terrifying monsters. To mend the rift, save the day, and return home, Tristan and his allies must seek out the missing trickster god Anansi, a journey that takes them to regions inhabited by ancient gods. As a reluctant hero--afraid of heights, grieving, and burdened by past failures--Tristan's voice rings true and sympathetic, while the irrepressible Gum Baby steals every scene. Mbalia expertly weaves a meaningful portrayal of family and community with folklore, myth, and history--including the legacy of the slave trade--creating a fast-paced, heroic series starter. Ages 8-12. Agent: Victoria Marini, Cake Literary. (Oct.)

Copyright 2019 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Tristan is reluctantly on his way to spend the summer with his grandparents on the family farm. In his pocket he carries the journal of his best friend Eddie, killed in a bus accident. Tristan's survivor guilt means he hasn't read the journal, and he is trying very hard to ignore the strange green glow coming from its cover. When Gum Baby, a figure from West African legend, tries to steal the journal, Tristan races to retrieve it, breaking a bottle on his grandmother's bottle tree and falling through a flaming hole into a parallel world. Here, the stories Tristan's grandmother tells are solidly real: in the course of breathless chases, close escapes, and mounting stakes, he meets John Henry, Brer Fox, High John the Conqueror, and other figures from African and African American folklore. A race to retrieve Anansi's story box reveals Tristan's destiny as an Anansesem, a storyteller of power, and makes him a pivotal figure in the saving of this strange new world. While the novel is lengthy, the pace is quick, secondary characterizations are nicely delineated, and the folkloric figures are heroic and true to their legends. The world-building includes evocative descriptions of skeleton ships, manacled monsters, and deadly villains. In addition to being rife with action, the story is rooted in the emotional journey of the protagonist; between making friends and losing them, Tristan finally makes peace with Eddie's death. VERDICT Part of the "Rick Riordan Presents" series, this debut novel offers a richly realized world, a conversational, breezy style, and a satisfying conclusion that leaves room for sequels.—Janice M. Del Negro, GSLIS Dominican University, River Forest, IL

Copyright 2019 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.
Kwame Mbalia
Kwame Mbalia is the New York Times best-selling author of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor award. The book was also named to best-of-the-year lists compiled by Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Public Library, and the New York Times. The second book in the trilogy is Tristan Strong Destroys the World, and the third is Tristan Strong Keeps Punching. Kwame is also the publisher of an imprint at Disney Hyperion called Freedom Fire, dedicated to stories about the Black experience by Black creators. Kwame lives with his wife and children outside Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is currently working on a new middle grade series about a character named Jax Freeman. For more information, go to
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Rick Riordan Presents
Publication date
September 22, 2020
Tristan Strong
BISAC categories
JUV039060 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Friendship
JUV037000 - Juvenile Fiction | Fantasy & Magic
JUV001000 - Juvenile Fiction | Action & Adventure
JUV011010 - Juvenile Fiction | People & Places | United States - African-American
JUV012050 - Juvenile Fiction | Legends, Myths, Fables | African
Library of Congress categories
Characters in literature
Characters and characteristics in literature
African Americans
Adventure and adventurers
Science fiction
Paranormal fiction
Action and adventure fiction
Texas Bluebonnet Awards Master List
2021 - 2022

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