Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: Tristan Strong, Book 1

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: Tristan Strong, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Teen connects with African folklore in exciting fantasy.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

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 are different from and similar to 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. In terms of representation, Tristan, his family, Eddie, and folk hero John Henry are all Black. 

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  Kwame Mbalia's middle grade fantasy novel Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky was named a 2020 Coretta Scott King (Author) Honor Book. It features characters and concepts from African and African American folklore, and presents storytelling as powerful magic. After main character Tristan, a 13-year-old African American rising eighth-grader in Chicago, travels to his grandparents' home in Alabama and accidentally enters a magical realm, he learns how to use his talent to end a war and save his allies. There are references to his best friend Eddie dying in a seventh grade bus accident. The level of violence in the mostly magical battles is low, neither scary nor bloody. But there are hordes of metallic stinging insects. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byZhangorphne July 10, 2020

Amazing but hard to grasp

So I read rhis after my son did because 1. I love these kinds of books and 2. I wanted to make him do a book report on it.

I thought the story was engaging a... Continue reading
Adult Written byFreebieFred April 27, 2021

Good Book

Overall, I think this is a good book, but it's a little scary. A nine-year-old I know thought it was good but a little creepy. So. . . I recommend this boo... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byYOU DO NOT NEED... May 9, 2020

AMAZING BOOK!! Not for the younger audience...

This book is sort of like a spin off of the Percy Jackson series. So, there are fake gods and goddesses.

This is a great book, but the main reason I don... Continue reading

What's the story?

As TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY opens, Tristan is a rising eighth-grader still mourning the death of his best friend, Eddie, who died during a bus accident when the two boys were on a seventh grade field trip. He leaves his home in Chicago to spend a month at his grandparents' house in Alabama, taking with him Eddie's journal, given to him by Eddie's mom. When a strange doll-like creature steals the 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 expertly incorporates African and African American folklore into a contemporary middle grade novel. Author Kwame Mbalia has created a highly likable main character in Tristan, who's at first reluctant to be enmeshed in the magical battles but gradually accepts 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. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky 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 do some of the folktales emphasize the fear of captivity and the hope of freedom?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and adventure

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate