Kwame Mbalia – TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY

The books that have written themselves on my skin and in my heart are far too many to name in this space. The point is books matter. Stories matter.


When I read about Kwame Mbalia’s TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY, my pulse quickened because I was excited. When I read the book’s dedication “For the stories untold and the children who will tell them,” I knew I was holding magic in its purest form in that royal purple hardback.

All across this planet is a tradition of storytelling. There are shared experiences and similar characters, and the stories create a unique tapestry of vibrancy and life that define us. But we all carry a Story Box, a way to honor our ancestors and remember. And this is one hell of a required reading of a story box. These are the stories we have to remember. These are the stories we tried to destroy.


I knew about Anansi, the Weaver. But I didn’t know about High John or John Henry. I wasn’t familiar with Br’er Fox or Br’er Rabbit (even though Disney attempted to destroy them). I’d heard of Gum Baby and Mwatiya, but I didn’t know that the People could fly.


Mbalia’s young adult novel about a “nerdy black boy from Chicago” is a masterpiece of storytelling, tradition, and history. Oral traditions kept the stories alive when the people were enslaved. The African gods blended and merged as history (and men) took the people who could fly, put them in chains, and made it a crime to teach them to read and write. Mbalia breathes life into these characters as any good storyteller would. And Tristan Strong, the most unlikely of heroes, a 7th grader who carries the guilt of the death of his best friend like sap on his chucks holding him back, he’s the hero we need and may have my favorite origin story.


TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY, packed full of adventure with a fast pacing that holds you close, is also a book about the importance of storytelling, the importance of history, the importance of our ancestors. There are so many passages in the book that resonated with me but the one I found the most powerful was when Tristan was talking to High John.


“His voice was crashing ocean waves and shaking earth. Old trees and Mississippi suns. Auction houses and Congo Landings. I didn’t recognize any of the images and yet I knew them all.”


We can’t erase history. And we shouldn’t – not if we’re to learn, to grow, to live. I encourage you to read outside your Story Box.


The stories matter. Long live the storytellers. All of them.

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