Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Rick Riordan Presents: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

When I found out bestselling author Rick Riordan was creating his unique imprint for middle-grade readers; I was very excited. Since the imprint’s launch, one of these latest debut novels: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, is such a fantastic, remarkable story. It is a blend of African folklore, African American history, and African mythology.
Losing his best friend Eddie in a horrific bus crash, Tristan is struggling with his sadness. To help with his recovery, his parents send him to stay with his grandparents in Alabama for a month, Tristan brings Eddie’s journal, to remind himself of home and his dear friend, he reluctantly goes. His adventure leads him to a little sticky laced doll baby named Gum Baby, and she is his perfect comrade bringing humor to the story. An annoying, loud-mouthed. She steals Eddie’s journal from him and takes off. He follows the Gum Baby into some eerie woodlands and around the strange bottle tree. There as he is grappling with recovering the journal, he unwittingly penetrates a hole in the fabric of the cosmos, unlocking a hole to another realm identified as MidPass.

The world of African American adventures all jammed packed into this fantasy. Individual elements that are facing human struggle which person he wants to be. Mbalia has written a relatable series that is a fresh modern adventure. A well-crafted world full of enchantment. Some of the scenes are tense, but they also come alive with strong characters that give this novel an even pace that is not long-winded.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is an excellent novel for both kids and grown-ups and will keep readers enthralled page after page.

Have you read or listened to the audiobook? What do your young readers think of Tristan Strong?

Annisha Jeffries About Annisha Jeffries

Annisha Jeffries is the head of the youth services department at Cleveland Public Library. She was a member of the 2007 ALSC Board and served on several selection committees, including the 2018 Caldecott Committee. A 2000-2001 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, Jeffries is currently the Chair of the Norman A, Sugarman Children's Biography Award.
She can be reached at


  1. Thank you so much for highlighting this book! I was blown away by all the things this book did. It was a rip-roaring adventure, as well as a deeper emotional book about dealing with grief, and often very, very funny. When I started, I was prepared for something a little more formulaic in how Riordan’s and Riordan Presents’ books are, which are all great, but all a little similar in how they pull the hero out of the real world and into the adventure with the mythical characters. This does it a little differently, which was refreshing, but that isn’t a part of the Newbery criteria. What makes this book worthy of looking at it with a Newbery lens is how the overall plot structure comes to together, the pacing –it is a long book and it ebbs and flows between high adventure and those deeper emotion moments, and the characterization. Each character is fully fleshed with distinct personalities. He takes some characters from folklore, like Br’er Fox and Gum Baby, that could easily be drawn into caricatures, but doesn’t and turns them into fully fleshed beings with their own motives and agency.

    Also, can we talk about the the sentence level writing in this? It is so, so good, and it often what makes the book so funny (ex. “Her was old, like socks and sandals kind of old). I am so excited to read more from Mbalia!

    • Danielle, I so agree with you re the sentence level creativity — so refreshing. I keep marking my Kindle version of the book as I encounter cool imagery or descriptions: “Swirling below us was a dark, boiling sea, so horrifying that even my screams started screaming,” “…but you drain me. Like a straw. Here you come, and — fwoop!– all my energy is gone.” Loads of these: vivid and make you take note and consider those feelings: so true, with such brand new ways of describing them. This is what good writing is — and this is what good writing for children/young reader is: make language exciting and new!

      Now — would the 2020 Newbery Committee read this book and decide that it might be “too popular” — liked by “too many young readers” so that it must not be as “literary” or distinguished?? I am definitely “selling it” hard to my students who have just discovered how much they enjoy the tale, the characters, the adventure – and many of them probably don’t even realize Mbalia’s historical and cultural allusions: Midpass (Middle Passage) — Sarah & Rose, the People Who Could Fly, etc., even though those are surely also what make the book “individually distinguished” as prescribed by the Criteria.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

        I was impressed that Mbalia did not feel the need to elaborate on those cultural allusions that Roxanne points out. There could have been a moment where Tristan figures out Midpass/Middle Passage and tells the readers. Or an afterword where the allusions are explained. But he trusts the reader and he trusts the stories.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

        I’d be surprised to hear a “too popular” argument in a Newbery discussion. The Committee would have to discuss the positive literary qualities that others have mentioned here. Development of a Plot and Delineation of Characters, when done really well, often lead directly to popularity. And this book is strong in both of those areas, but not always, at least as I read it. Tristan’s an engaging enough character, but he does kind of fit the standard for this type of book: reluctant hero, something to prove, hidden powers that he didn’t know he had, scorned at first then earns respect…the specifics are interesting, but he’s still a less unique character, than say LALANI OF THE DISTANT SEA. Gum Baby was a terrific supporting character, but Ayanna felt undeveloped…and then we meet Thandiwe, who’s pretty much the same as Ayanna. Chestnutt was also kind of unformed. And while I thought many plot elements worked very well, some of the actions scenes lacked real suspense. It is possible that some of these things that I see as literary concerns can actually add to the book’s appeal for some readers: jokes and casual dialog in the middle of a battle can be fun to read; characters that have obvious main traits are easier to keep track of, especially in a book that has a large cast. But I still think you need to make the case in literary terms, rather than on the basis of popularity.

  2. Kate McCue-Day says

    I’m reading it right now. I can’t put it down. It’s definitely not my normal thing at all but I’m really loving it, I should have known as it was recommended by Jason Reynolds!!

  3. Mary Lou White says

    I am so glad to see this book in this discussion. I thought about suggesting it myself, but thought maybe it didn’t qualify as a part of a series that is part of a bigger, somewhat formulaic series. I know this is not Newbery criteria, but it IS important criteria for me: does it stick with me? Do I continue thinking about it later? Do I understand new things about the book as I turn it over in my mind? This book fit that criteria for me in ways that continue to surprise me. The complexity of the story structure – not just plot, but the way he structures myth and history through his use of geography – the Midpass uniting the land of African American mythology & folktale with the land of African mythology. The bone ships rising out of the ocean was one of the most disturbing and chilling images I have ever read in a children’s novel. There are layers and layers of symbolism and imagery that pull together a complex and horror filled history that (and anyone correct me here if I am wrong) is unique in literature for this age group. I do wish there had been an afterword, a guide, further information and suggested reading. I have been polling young readers in my library and none of them are familiar with the Uncle Remus tales (though since I have started recommending them, they are now all checked out!). I think young readers could use a guide for some of the mythology, folk tales, and actual history that is touched on in this book. When I took it to a school recently, I encouraged the teacher to read it and consider using it for a unit study or as an addition to a social studies unit. I think this deserves lots of award attention and I am eager to watch Mbalia grow as a writer.

  4. Emily Mroczek says

    I found that in evaluating this book- it was helpful for me to understand the “Rick Riordan Presents” concept. You can read his explanation here But to sum it up. The goal is to “Our goal is to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage.”
    Riordan edits, offers advice and writes a prologue. But it is the authors original work- meaning if the author and individual title meets eligibility for Newbery- then it can be considered!
    When I put this next to other RR Presents of the year- (Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Dragon Pearl, the second Aru Shah) I think the plot development and description of setting stand out.

    • Mary Lou White says

      Thanks for the clarification, Emily. I was wondering how much control Riordan exerts over the final draft. I have read the first of most of these series and found them to be fun but formulaic. However, young readers eat them up and that is good!! Tristan Strong just goes to a whole other level of quality and complexity.

Speak Your Mind