Tristan is the third generation of his family to pursue boxing, so when his first bout ends in failure, he faces both his own disappointment as well as the disapproval of his father and grandfather. Almost immediately, Tristan’s parents decide that he should spend the summer with his grandparents. Though he has conflicted feelings about his granddad, who is tough on him, but he is quite fond of Nana, who has built a strong relationship with Tristan infused with storytelling.Tristan also shared a love for stories with his friend Eddie, whose death he is still mourning and blames himself for. Tristan holds tight to Eddie’s journal, which contains the West African and African-American stories that mean so much to both of them. It’s here that the magic of the novel begins: Tristan has known since he received the journal that there’s something odd about it (for starters, it glows!).
Tristant Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky centers on stories, and it establishes that focus early as Tristan tells his tale directly to the reader:
“They didn’t want to hear the rest . . .
“Oh, you do?
“Well, what if I told you that I went to war over my best friend’s glowing journal? . . . Would you believe me?” (loc. 72).
Naming is also important. Tristan constantly bemoans the inappropriateness of having “Strong” as a last name when he considers himself to be a coward, weak, a failure. He knows that being a Strong means he’s expected to be brave and to work hard, but he’s not sure he can live up to those expectations. Tristan and the other characters in the book constantly remind each other to be careful with names and with stories because “stories are powerful magic” (loc. 656).They avoid saying their enemies’ names whenever possible so as not to evoke them, and Tristan comes to use stories as a weapon in his arsenal that is stronger even than his fists.
Tristan’s journey to mythological MidPass begins when Gum Baby, “a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest” (loc. 293), steals Eddie’s journal, and Tristan pursues her. Their battle ultimately ends in the midst of the Bottle Trees on his grandparents’ farm when Tristan, in an attempt to retrieve the journal, punches one of the bottles and unleashes Uncle C, a demon, though a hole that joins the ground under his feet and the sky of MidPass. Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole Tristan has made into a mythological world, and they immediately have to escape bone ships and the threat of the Maafa preying upon the Midfolk. He meets a brave young woman named Ayanna and legendary gods like Brer Fox and John Henry who help him understand the seriousness of the situation.
There’s so much to love here. Of course the mythology, and particularly stories that we (or at least I) aren’t as familiar with, is a big draw. But watching Tristan’s very real personal journey—his consideration of what bravery means, of when violence is appropriate, of what it means to know one’s story—is as compelling as the focus on the gods. Tristan is still trying to reconcile what has happened in the reality of his life back home, where he’s seeing a counselor who talks to him about not “hid[ing] from [his] fears.” Mr. Richardson says, “we have to be able to talk about them, or else they’ll fester like poison, eating us from the inside” (loc. 873). We see similar wisdom from the legendary figures Tristan meets: “Brer Fox told me we can’t harp on past mistakes” (loc. 884). As Tristan begins to reconcile the lessons of these two worlds, his confidence and agency grow.
Watching Tristan contend with symbols of slavery—the Fetterlings, Brand Flies, and bone ships, among others—is a powerful thread through the novel. For Tristan, considering that past has been a part of life, instilled by Nana, who reminds him that “A lot of times . . . little facts get smudged out of the history books. If you gon’ tell a story, you better be sure you’re telling the right one” (loc. 959). It’s in MidPass that Tristan learns to apply so many of the lessons his Nana and Eddie taught him, where the ideas that seemed abstract take on a concrete and immediate urgency. Kwame Mbalia here unites intention and execution in the fabulous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
In a structure that I appreciated, these tales from Legendary Leaders continue throughout the novel, reinforcing the feeling that we’re reading a story rooted in folk tales and history and reinforcing the experiences and lessons of the book’s protagonists.
Saeed launches into the story of Aladdin and Jasmine a few days after they’ve met, alternating between their points of view. Fans of the movie know that Jasmine meets Aladdin, a “street rat,” when she has disguised herself to explore the “true” Agrabah--with his knowledge of the streets, the impoverished orphan is able to keep her safe. Now, however, Aladdin has used his first wish from the genie to transform him into Prince Ali of Ababwa, a show off who is failing to impress Princess Jasmine.
For a while, Saeed follows the movie, which is both satisfying for fans and a little frustrating for those who want more. The author does effectively create a character in Jasmine who yearns for real leadership opportunities: she is frustrated with her father’s distant and cold rule over Agrabah and wishes that she could act as her deceased mother did to bring real compassion to her kingdom.
When Aladdin and Jasmine take off on their magic carpet ride (who else is singing “A Whole New World” in their heads?), Saeed begins to build her own facet of the narrative. Jasmine requests a detour to visit Prince Ali’s home in Ababwa, and Aladdin uses a loophole to convince Genie to make it happen. It’s in Ababwa that the couple truly connects and also begins to develop a firm idea of what it means to be both a good leader and a good person.
I appreciated so much the details of the kingdom of Ababwa, and the people Aladdin and Jasmine encounter teach them a plethora of lessons throughout their visit. It’s here, however, that I most felt my distance from the young readers at whom this book is aimed: the overly explicit expression of neatly encapsulated morals to the story left me wishing for more subtlety. These lessons fit more in the sections from Legendary Leaders but feel less an organic part of the main narrative. Saeed takes on compassion, economic disparity, education, truth, the importance of actions . . . watching Aladdin and Jasmine grow and seeing Jasmine become more determined to take on a leadership role in Agrabah (go, feminism!) offers clear character arcs but left me wishing for the more complex and nuanced Amal Unbound.
I do think many young readers will enjoy Aisha Saeed’s Aladdin: Far from Agrabah in advance of the release of the new film, and the novel will certainly enrich their experience.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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