I read Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the 2019 Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Winner, near the end of February this year… just a month out from what would have been KidLitCon had not 2020 intervened. So when I wanted to reread my own review before writing a review of the second, I discovered I never did. You’ll just have to trust the many, many awards it won to know that it is worthwhile, and go read it now if you haven’t!
Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia. Read by Amir Abdullah. Rick Riordan Presents, 2020. Print ISBN 978-1368042383. Audio ASIN B086Z4DW8L. Listened to audiobook on Libby.
This book opens a month after the end of the last book. Tristan is still staying with his grandparents on their farm in Alabama. When his grandfather tells him that a local boxing champion will be coming to spar with him, Tristan barely hears him because he’s focused on spirits that he’s begun to see around the property, asking for help and warning that the Shamble Man is coming. His grandmother notices Tristan’s distraction, too, when he’s not paying attention to the stories she’s telling for him to record with the Story Box Phone, in which Anansi is now trapped (though not trapped enough to keep him from being extremely snarky!) But by the time Tristan decides to take out John Henry’s magical gloves and the bracelet with the adinkra charms* of the gods that he’d hidden away, it’s too late – his grandmother has collapsed after defending the barn from two plat-eyes in the shape of giant cats, and then been kidnapped.
This calls for a return to the magical world of Alke! It also requires giving Anansi some more permissions, so that he can create an app to call the goddess Riverboat Annie to transport them there – along with the happy discovery that Tristan’s friend Ayanna from the last adventure is now apprenticed to Riverboat Annie and there as well.
Tristan had thought that he and his friends had saved Alke during their last adventure. But once there, he discovers that the rebuilding has been slow and difficult, and new dangers threaten to undo the little progress they’ve made. Tristan, Ayanna, Gum Baby, and a new and quite unfriendly boy called Junior join to figure out what’s wrong, rescue Tristan’s Nana, and save the world again. They are going to save the world, right?
I really appreciated the introduction of a number of new, female goddesses. In the previous book, the big mythological/magical creatures that Tristan was involved with were John Henry, High John, Brer Rabbit, and Anansi. While Anansi is still obviously part of the story, our magical stars in this book are now Riverboat Annie from African-American folklore, Mami Wati, the West African water goddess (also an important part of The Rise of the Jumbies), and a boo hag who runs a juke joint for those in need of refuge and who turns out to be less scary than Tristan had feared. His Nana’s quilting and knitting are also important vectors for story, magic and tradition, something I very much appreciated as a crafter myself. But with deep looks at the effects of trauma and diaspora alongside the adventure, Tristan learning more about himself and friendship, and the consistent humor that Gum Baby brings, all go together to make a book that is if anything even stronger than the first one.
I read the first book in print, but if you are an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audiobook version to bring the many different sounds oof the West African and African-American characters to life. My only small quibble is that Anansi in my head sounds a little more cartoonish than the Anansi depicted here, but otherwise, this is an excellent audiobook.
*I don’t think I had encountered adinkra before the first Tristan Strong book, but they play an important (nonmagical) part in the recent picture book Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, which is an excellent book on its own and also has pictures of many adinkra in the endpapers