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Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky Book Poster Image
Teen connects with African folklore in exciting fantasy.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky features characters from African and African American folklore, from John Henry to Anansi to Br'er Rabbit. The novel offers the opportunity to discuss how African gods and goddesses differ from those of Greece and Rome.

Positive Messages

It's not good to bottle up grief and hide your emotions. Making new friends can help people heal. Storytelling is important, because it connects people with their pasts.

Positive Role Models & Representations

At the beginning of the book, Tristan Strong is sad and disappointed, blaming himself for a friend's death. He's angry and grieving, doing more harm than good until he accepts his destiny as a storyteller. Throughout the novel, he's resourceful, compassionate, and brave.

Violence & Scariness

Violence is limited mostly to magical battles against creatures called fetterlings that capture victims but don't seem to kill them. There are hordes of metallic stinging insects.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is a fantasy novel by Kwame Mbalia, featuring characters and concepts from AfricanAmerican folklore and mythology. Storytelling is presented as powerful magic, and after he finds his way into a magical realm, Tristan learns how to use his talent to end a war and save his allies. The level of violence in the mostly magical battles is low, neither scary nor bloody. But there are hordes of metallic stinging insects.

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What's the story?

As TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY opens, the main character is mourning the death of his best friend, Eddie. When a strange doll-like creature steals Eddie's journal, Tristan follows it to his grandmother's magical Bottle Tree, which he punches in frustration, sending him into a magical realm populated by gods such as Anansi, Ayannna, and John Henry. Tristan's quest to return home leads him into a battle between awesome supernatural forces. Will he and his allies be able to defeat the forces of darkness and close the hole in the sky?

Is it any good?

This innovative fantasy novel expertly opens a window onto a fresh perspective of African American culture. Author Kwame Mbalia has created a highly likable main charcter in Tristan, who's at first reluctant to be enmeshed in the magical battles but gradually accepting that his help is crucial to the cause. There's plenty of action, lots of humor, and chapters that end with a twist or a cliffhanger.

Readers of all ethnicities will enjoyTristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. But it deserves praise for the ways it pays respect to African cultures, displaying their vitality and continuing relevance.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky depicts African and African American folklore. Why is storytelling important? Why has the folklore of some cultures received more exposure in popular culture than others?

  • Tristan is told to "man up" when he's sad about losing his friend Eddie. Why are boys sometimes told not to express their emotions? Is there a right or wrong way to grieve?

  • How did slavery affect African American folklore? How does African folklore emphasize the fear of captivity and the hope of freedom?

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