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Talking with Kwame Mbalia: Folktales, Storytelling, and Gum Baby!

The following post was written by Sasha Dowdy, a program specialist in the Library’s Young Readers Center.

Children’s book author Kwame Mbalia will discuss “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” during this year’s virtual National Book Festival. His on-demand video will become available on Friday, September 25. (Photo credit: Bryan Jones)

Mythology is amazing. These stories invite us to dive into the minds of those who came before us, and to gaze upon the mysterious and wonderful world together. The shared stories that came so long before us continue to compel and intrigue us.

My personal introduction to mythology was through my dad, who gave me books about the “Kalevala,” an epic poem of Finnish folklore and mythology, and the West African tales of Anansi, the trickster spider. Today, many children in the U.S. are introduced to Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology by Rick Riordan.

What makes these stories cross oceans and centuries and cultures? Kwame Mbalia, a children’s book author who explores the world of African and African American folklore in a contemporary setting in his Tristan Strong series, is a great person to provide some insight.

I was thrilled to have a chance to spend time with Kwame Mbalia as we recorded his talk for the Children’s Stage at this year’s first-ever virtual National Book Festival. He is one of the most fascinating and engaging people that I have met — in person or online. He is a brilliant storyteller, entertainer and mythology expert. He shares some of the ways that he prepared for writing his first book, “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” and you would be surprised to learn that he did a lot more than reading many, many myths and folktales.

Some of Kwame’s research took him to the best experts in the field, such as the famous author and oral historian Zora Neale Hurston (and you can hear her voice in the Library’s online collections!). As we talked storytelling and folklore, I learned so much — and my curiosity to learn more took me down many fun rabbit holes. For example, I found this recording of work song “John Henry” (starts at 1:20) from 1939, featuring John Henry the African American folk hero and character in the Tristan Strong series.

You will see that Kwame has a talent for breathing life into figures from folklore in his own unique way, and he will share some of his tips for budding writers. He can balance the funny with the poignant as he seamlessly weaves in mythological figures and his own inventions into a relatable, action-packed story.

And I can’t wait for you to behold the joy that is Kwame reading from his book. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I need you to imagine Kwame Mbalia reading in the voice of a one-foot-tall, opinionated and ferocious spitfire that is Gum Baby. I would pay to see this performance again, and you and I are both lucky in that this talk, and the entire festival, is absolutely free. Please enjoy Kwame Mbalia’s appearance at this year’s virtual National Book Festival; his on-demand video will be available on Friday, September 25!

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute news, schedule updates and other important festival information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the festival, too, by making a gift now.

One Comment

  1. Cynthia Pease
    September 2, 2020 at 7:42 am

    This is fascinating to me because earlier this year I read Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. I had not know much about the mythology of John Henry. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Mbalia and Mr. Whitehead in conversation with each other on this subject. At any rate, I will definitely be reading Mr. Mbaila’s book and hope to see him virtually at the Book Festival.

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