In this triumphant middle grade debut inspired by West African mythology and African-American folk tales, black seventh grader Tristan Strong is sent from Chicago to spend the summer on his grandparents’ Alabama farm. His best friend has just died, and he’s lost a boxing match (much to his boxing family’s disappointment). When a talking doll named Gum Baby steals his prized book of stories— which has mysteriously begun to glow—Tristan pursues, accidentally tearing a hole between the farm and the myriad lands of Alke. There, he encounters legendary folk heroes such as hammer-swinging John Henry and wily Brer Fox, whose people are being captured and enslaved by terrifying monsters. To mend the rift, save the day, and return home, Tristan and his allies must seek out the missing trickster god Anansi, a journey that takes them to regions inhabited by ancient gods. As a reluctant hero—afraid of heights, grieving, and burdened by past failures—Tristan’s voice rings true and sympathetic, while the irrepressible Gum Baby steals every scene. Mbalia expertly weaves a meaningful portrayal of family and community with folklore, myth, and history—including the legacy of the slave trade—creating a fast-paced, heroic series starter. Ages 8–12. Agent: Victoria Marini, Cake Literary. (Oct.)
Mbalia expertly weaves a meaningful portrayal of family and community with folklore, myth, and history-including the legacy of the slave trade-creating a fast-paced, heroic series starter.Publishers Weekly
Mbalia's African American and West African gods (with villains tied to U.S. chattel slavery and the Middle Passage specifically) touch on the tensions between the cultures, a cultural nuance oft overlooked. Readers who want more than just a taste of Alke will be eager for future books.Kirkus
Mbalia's epic debut centers African American characters and tradition, featuring a pantheon of legends and a plot worthy of such tricksters as Brer Rabbit and Anansi the Weaver. Perfectly paced, this cinematic adventure never drags, anchored by Tristan's conversational narration and balanced by his struggle to cope with a friend's passing. It brims with heart, humor, and action, successfully crafting a beautifully unified secondary world that brings the power of stories to glorious life.Booklist
Part of the "Rick Riordan Presents" series, this debut novel offers a richly realized world, a conversational, breezy style, and a satisfying conclusion that leaves room for sequels.SLJ
This epic tale is worthy of the endorsement of Rick Riordan, who wrote the preface in this novel. A guaranteed edge-of-your-seat read aloud for upper elementary and middle school fans of tall tales, mythology, and folkloric literary adventures.SLC
Overall a stellar mix of the playful and the serious, the traditional and the original, this novel marks the emergence of a strong new voice in myth-based children's fantasy.BCCB
Gr 5–8—Tristan is reluctantly on his way to spend the summer with his grandparents on the family farm. In his pocket he carries the journal of his best friend Eddie, killed in a bus accident. Tristan's survivor guilt means he hasn't read the journal, and he is trying very hard to ignore the strange green glow coming from its cover. When Gum Baby, a figure from West African legend, tries to steal the journal, Tristan races to retrieve it, breaking a bottle on his grandmother's bottle tree and falling through a flaming hole into a parallel world. Here, the stories Tristan's grandmother tells are solidly real: in the course of breathless chases, close escapes, and mounting stakes, he meets John Henry, Brer Fox, High John the Conqueror, and other figures from African and African American folklore. A race to retrieve Anansi's story box reveals Tristan's destiny as an Anansesem, a storyteller of power, and makes him a pivotal figure in the saving of this strange new world. While the novel is lengthy, the pace is quick, secondary characterizations are nicely delineated, and the folkloric figures are heroic and true to their legends. The world-building includes evocative descriptions of skeleton ships, manacled monsters, and deadly villains. In addition to being rife with action, the story is rooted in the emotional journey of the protagonist; between making friends and losing them, Tristan finally makes peace with Eddie's death. VERDICT Part of the "Rick Riordan Presents" series, this debut novel offers a richly realized world, a conversational, breezy style, and a satisfying conclusion that leaves room for sequels.—Janice M. Del Negro, GSLIS Dominican University, River Forest, IL
Chicago seventh grader Tristan Strong travels to Alke, where African American folk characters are gods.
Tristan has just lost his first boxing match. It's unsurprising, given he's mourning the death of his best friend, Eddie, and struggling with accompanying survivor guilt, but unacceptable for someone from a boxing family. On the ride to summer exile with his grandparents in the Alabama countryside, Tristan begins reading Eddie's story journal. Somehow, the journal allows Tristan to see folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit sending an unseen someone off on a mission. That night, Gum Baby (a hoot and a half—easily the funniest character in the book), from the Anansi story, steals Eddie's journal. Needless to say, things go awry: A hole is ripped in the sky of Alke, and Tristan (but not only Tristan) falls in. The people of Alke are suffering, but grieving, reluctant hero Tristan's unwilling to jump right in to help those in need, even when it becomes clear that he's partly responsible, making him both imperfect and realistic. Mbalia's African American and West African gods (with villains tied to U.S. chattel slavery and the Middle Passage specifically) touch on the tensions between the cultures, a cultural nuance oft overlooked. Readers who want more than just a taste of Alke will be eager for future books. Most human characters, like Tristan, are black with brown skin.
A worthy addition to the diverse array of offerings from Rick Riordan Presents. (Fantasy. 10-14)